Sundown in America

Sundown - Photo by Lindsay Nehls

Sundown - Photo by Lindsay Nehls

Sundown in America

 

            Faded day darkened, puerperal, eastward over the highway.  The radio, set to scan, switched from station to station, as it had since Clarion.  The passengers didn’t notice.  Lynn listened to the tires on the roadway, a gentle hum filling their box with sound.  Elle heard joy in the bells.  Amish teenagers rang them from high on the overpass.  Patch-bearded, the boys jumped and cheered when Lynn held her hand on the horn.  Elle looked back as the car shot under the rusted bridge.  The boys rushed to the eastern side, waving with wild ferocity at Lynn and Elle, the only life moving along the Interstate.

Automated mast-lighting flicked on over the asphalt, although, with the nearing summer solstice, the daylight would hold for several hours still. 

“Nightlights,” said Lynn.  “We’d better find a place to camp.”

Banjos blended with talk-radio, while harpsichords hammered into jazz.  Pages ruffled crisp, over the zydeco.

“Can you imagine,” asked Walt, from the back seat, “roads in Roman times?  If they had streetlights, they’d have to ignite them by hand, night after night.  Some poor old man, hooded and hunched over on a donkey, would ride from lamp to lamp, carrying an eternal torch on a crooked rod. 

“What stories would he tell?”

The road, designed as a military runway, was a crumbling strip of endless pavement, white on the edges, and Walt felt sick to think that they weren’t already at their destination, resting. 

Putting down his book, he said, “We have lights coming on, all on their own, all the way out here, where only we’re driving out to see them.  And, its like this all over the country.  From sea to shining sea.  Constant lights everywhere.  In every nook and cranny.

“All the overlooked marvels of the modern world.”

An airplane passed-by, high overhead, and was the only movement in the static blue.  Elle rolled up her magazine and shoved it away between her seat and the center console.  She stopped the radio on a surf-rock tune, where harmonizing guitars leapt over the persistent beat, tidal, singing-in from the shadows, oceanic with vibrato.

Lynn looked at her friend, keeping both hands straight and firm on the wheel, but her eyes far from the road.

“Will you find the campsite, Ellie?  Maybe something off the next exit or so?  We should leave ourselves some daylight to prepare for bed.”

She retracted slowly back to her original posture, and corrected her alignment on the lane with calm.  Walt leaned his head against the trembling window, while Elle withdrew her phone from her pocket.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to take over driving?” asked Walt, his temple rapping with every pebble underfoot.  “I could get us to Greenpoint by two or three, easy.  I slept from Dayton to Zanesville.”

“We packed the tents for a purpose,” said Elle, thumbing the glowing screen. 

“And, my love of camping outweighs your dislike for it,” said Lynn, finger raised, conducting the symphony of her point.

“I don’t dislike camping,” said Walt.  “But, we’re on a mission, and I want to get there so I don’t have to worry about getting there.”

“It’ll be a gorgeous night tonight,” said Lynn, “and we’re in no rush.”

Elle turned around to face Walt.  She tucked her elbow snug under the headrest to brace her position.  Walt’s body appeared limp to her, atrophied, half spread-out over the back seat.  He was a patient on a mattress in a gangrene ward.  His skin was pale and tinted blue, despite the sultry summer heat.  Looking at him made her stomach tighter with distress, and it was already heavy from the road.  To the knuckle, his finger marked a point in an impenetrable brick of anonymous pages, the lingering decline and fall. 

In the smoker’s court, behind his favorite venue, he’d told her how, “I see books I read weave into my reality. 

“They become the stories of my life.  When I’ve got a book, a real book, I have to carry it around with me everywhere.  That way, when the pages make their way into my days, into my events, I’ll know how to survive them.” 

And, rarely, she thought, did the books he read deal with pleasant subjects or stem from admirable authors.  Gibbon suffered from a swollen scrotum and lived celibate, in the shadow of an unfulfilled love.  Better books exist for impressionable people to model themselves upon, she thought, especially when rooted words reach deep into the viscera and grow so, out into the physicality of one’s life.

“You’re all show,” she’d told him, “reading Maldoror at a concert.  Wearing turtlenecks.  Are you even a real person?  Are you losing your mind?”

She thought about when Walt had read Proust last year, and how by the time he’d reached The Captive, his hair had naturally begun to twirl. 

“I almost left you then,” her eyes reminded him.  “The way you took to complaining about every little irritation.  The way you locked yourself in your apartment for days.  The way you extracted an internal sadness from everyone who came to visit you, digging in with your eyes and mining out their naked condition.

“You’re nearing this point again,” her eyes said.  “Over these thousand pages.”  But, her voice worded it, sharply, “If we wanted to get there just to get there, we would have flown.”

On his couch, she held his hand.  He said, “Elle, do you think we should move in together?  I’ve been imagining us on that tree-lined street down at the bottom of the hill.”

She said, “I was thinking we should break up.  I don’t know where this is going, and I’ve grown so used to living alone.”

She turned back toward the dash, out of his painful world.  Still involved.

“We’re only twenty miles out of Du Bois,” she said.  “We’ve never had a chance to visit, and now’s the perfect time. 

“Bring my life pleasantly full-circle.”

The rumble strips rode up onto the lanes, sending Lynn abrasive signals to slow her speed.

“It looks like major construction up ahead,” she said, tapping her GPS.  “It says that if we keep going, we could be sitting for more than an hour.  Are you sure we should risk the day?”

Walt counted the skipping stones, tossed up from the tires.  They rattled around the in under-carriage and nicked across the side window, skimming before his nose.  Pieces, he thought.  Roads that crumble and crack with age and worry.  Now that nowhere is safe to be.  This was once a way to escape the cities.  A way to disperse the population.  To de-centralize it.  Cast a web of roads on the periphery. This is where the early bombs could not reach.  Now we know that distance doesn’t matter, that it would be worse to survive.  The roads mainline us back to where we came.  They’ll take us to those targets.  Now that nowhere is safe to be.

“I see one more exit before Du Bois,” said Lynn.  “There’s a campground symbol off the State Route.  We know for sure we’ll find somewhere here.”

Elle didn’t respond, but she shut off her phone and tucked it away. 

Walt ran his thumb over the flip-book pages, hanging on the silky web of roads.

A line of cars became visible around a bend in the distance, all standing still on the highway, mirages rising off, bending apart the sizzling rooftop arches into splashing shapeless shapes, untouchable changes to the real, boiled alterations to the eye’s receptive light. 

“Where did they all come from?” asked Lynn, leaning forward over the wheel.

“We’re close enough to Du Bois,” said Elle, flipping her hand.  “I think this counts.  Let’s get off here.”

“It’s all the same in the country,” Walt consoled.  “If we want to call these houses over here ‘Du Bois,’ I don’t see the difference.  Think of it as ‘Greater Du Bois,’ and not whatever the hell this place is.  Alaska.”

As they came to the exit, bearing the name of no town,  Lynn guided them smoothly around the off-ramp, and they entered the old American grid of roads.  The only structure at the corner was an abandoned gas station, and Lynn followed the campground signs away from it, northward into the trees. 

She chugged down the way, farther into a territory distanced from civilization, a civilization suggested by the, until recently, vacant, half-kept Interstate behind.  A steel sign with torn edges informed them that they were entering a region called ‘The Pennsylvania Wilds.’

Lynn smiled.

“When I was young,” she said, “my father and I took a kayak down the Ohio River, camping in people’s backyards along the shore.  We stopped when we got to Cairo, where the river meets the Mississippi, and I wanted to carry on, but if we didn’t stop with the Mississippi, we wouldn’t stop with the sea, and we would have never returned to the land.

“And, the land is what we set out to see.”

Continuing through a twisted path of shadowed forest, she reached a straightaway and allowed her car to bolt.  The stretch led them bursting into a meadow, sunlit and alive with calming evening rays.  Fields of waving wheat surrounded them, rimmed by rolling hills that toppled upward in the distance, where the flatland gave-in to the stacking soil.  Farmhouses off long gravel driveways rested quiet, far from the road.  Dairy cows meandered under the shade of the sparse apple trees, tinted orange in the declining day.

The campground’s sign, the largest sign they’d seen here, was hand-painted, and instructed them to turn right down what looked like private property, a hidden estate, rustic, and built with old money.  Lynn followed the turn.  Tornadic wafts of dust caught the sun and refused to release it, golden through thin branches of maple.  Highland cattle shook flies from their shaggy orange hair, looking like strange, enormous, prehistoric men, punk rock drummers with yarned strands concealing their eyes.  Pointed horns protruded from their straightened mud-caked mops, and they bobbed them against the bark in boredom.

Focused on the quality of the evening’s light and on the novelty of the strange grazers, Walt heard the pop of gravel before he saw the source.  Not far ahead down the road, a grey hearse charged toward them, challenging them with its wide frame sweeping up the narrow strip.  With a consistent, too-high speed, it submitted Lynn to a high-schooler’s gauntlet, a game of head-on chicken, a joust, and keeping the tires on the path as much as she could, Lynn kept-up her speed and retained her integrity without risking a scratch on her father’s sedan.  The opponent went into the tall grass, mowing deep into the drainage ditch before rearing back up.  And, as they passed, Walt saw how the hearse was piloted by an elderly man.  The man’s long arms drooped like loose spaghetti off the wheel, and his sad face was held by a frog neck, displaying confetti freckles and rivulet veins, visible even through the tint of his darkened window glass.  The woman, sitting in shotgun, navigated by screaming at the man and smacking him back onto the road with her purse.  She wore a large sunhat, and she made eye-contact with Walt as they passed, spitting out some kind of curse that he couldn’t hear, but felt crack deep and black like molasses in his soul.

“Asshole,” said Lynn. 

“Everyday,” she raved.  “Always, always.  People continue when they know they’re in the wrong.  They continue.”

At the end of the strip, they rounded a mulberry tree, blooming beside the hills.  Looking back toward the main road, over a green lake of vegetation, Walt’s eyes skipped along the jumping lines of soy.  So many rows, he thought.  So many fields.  So many crops, organized and growing.  The long land.

“Why didn’t we just drive over it all?” he asked, deciding after speaking, that they already had.

The road dug into the hills and wound upward over the muscular terrain.  The trio lost sight of the farms and they re-entered the forest.  Elle rolled down her window to feel the fresh rush of the wind, the propeller whoosh of a passing picket fence.  She listened to the perpetual road-song, silenced only when they crossed a silver brook.  Then, she heard the muted words of the creaking covered bridge, with smooth wood beneath revolving round rubber, humming.  The summer felt fresh and fleeting to her, and she closed her eyes to revel in the experience, retaining the moment, to keep it forever and to surpass it, to press herself entirely into the short-lived, day-bright evenings of summer.  To hold the summer in her hands.

With her eyes closed, she rode the difference between the shade and the sun on her face, and she could smell the green leaves of the trees, and she could sense their teardrop shapes overhead.  Then, Elle felt a transformation, that the car had come out into the open again and that the road had spread out into a wide lot, like they were in a boat with a purple sail riding on the chopping sea.  No, this was nothing like the sea.  They’d come to somewhere diseased, where the unshaded sun was not as warm as it’d been before.

The dust underneath turned to a loud crumble of gravel again, and the pure quality of the light, casting colors and calm over her eyelids, neutralized and paled.  She surrendered to an unwanted reality and opened her eyes.  Ahead, in rows like the soybeans, were RV trailers plugged into ports.  Middle-aged men walked from arbitrary point to arbitrary point, like swamp-dwelling birds, but Elle didn’t see any women wandering around, not on first glance. 

“We’ve uncovered a hidden city of mustaches,” she said.

Lynn pulled up under another hand-painted sign, this one reading the name of the campground, and she stopped the tired vehicle. 

Walt noted the sign’s poor and terrifying depiction of a famous cartoon bear, and he said, “This place is dismal.”

“I’ve seen a million places like this,” said Lynn.  “They’ll have a tent camping spot somewhere in the trees, but up-front, they keep all the luxury campers, concession stands, swing-sets, etcetera, etcetera.”

“Is this luxury?” asked Elle.  “The pond looks like an open sewer.”

“Some of these RVs have bedrooms bigger than your own,” nodded Lynn.  “A lot of money is sitting in this field.”

“A lot of wasted money, if you ask me,” said Walt. 

Lynn tisked. 

“You don’t know the country.”

“No,” he said,  “but, how did this become the country?  It’s giving me good reasons not to know it.”

Again, their attention was taken by the pop of gravel, from treaded tires turning, and Walt wondered now if gravel existed as a way to keep cars from sneaking up on you, or stealing away at night, like creaky floorboards in ancient Japanese palaces, meant to alert bodyguards of silent assassins stalking.

A golf cart wobbled toward them.  Strapped to the top was a large searchlight, as if the driver had lifted it from a film-set or helicopter.  The driver was wearing a weathered race-car jacket, signaling with primary colors his favorite driver from the late nineties.  Beside him sat an elderly woman who might have been Queen Elizabeth, without pearls or jewels.  She smiled with big white teeth, and as the golf cart neared, Walt noted the intensity of her red lipstick.

Lynn rolled down her window.  The golf cart pulled up and stopped beside them, but neither the driver nor his passenger left their seats. 

“Welcome,” the driver said, leaning low to look deep inside the car.  His eyes scraped away at every surface, like a knife hollowing out a gourd. 

“You folks looking for a place to stay tonight?”

“Yes,” said Lynn.  “Is there an office?”

Looking around, Walt saw what could have been a shower-room or a bathroom, but nothing that resembled an office.  Atop a stand like a gallows, a young man filled a bucket with a black hose.  The sign above him read ‘Non-Potable Water.’

“I’m the owner,” said the driver.  “Name’s Gary.  This is Momma.  We have a house just over there a bit, back toward where you came from.   If we had an office, that’d be it, but I’d prefer if you didn’t go over there.  Private property.  We’d have to sic the dogs on you.”

He snickered, as if that were a joke.

“If you want a spot for the night, I’ll show you one in a second.  I suppose you’re thinking of tent camping?”

“Yes!” said Lynn, with cheer.

“I guessed so.  You don’t have an RV.  Doubt you’d come all the way out here to sleep in your car.

“I can take you back to a nice place in the woods if you’d like.  Not any other tent campers tonight.  Usually, we only get RVs, and then I get so many regulars that it’s always a surprise when someone new rolls along. 

“Let me drive Momma back to the house, and then I’ll come back and show you where to pitch.”

He held up his hand, a sign to hold the trio in place, and then he went back to the wheel, to drive off again.

“How much will it be for the night?” asked Lynn.  And Gary looked at Momma a moment, assessing.

“I’d say fifteen dollars,” he said, turning.  “Wait here.  I’ll be back.”

 

Walt couldn’t see the house, but it mustn’t have been far.  Only three surf-rock tunes, bleaching-out over the waves in two minute sessions, came and left, like three fully lived lifetimes, before Gary’s return.  The volume was set so close to the bottom, so close to silent now, Walt wondered if he were hallucinating the sound.  The three of them didn’t speak in that time.  They waited as if the time between Gary’s departure and return was not their time, but simply a necessary period to pass through, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, graced with a soundtrack of songs long forgotten by ninety-nine percent of the population, or more, forgotten by the trio even, before the songs were through.  The seconds of waiting were forgotten, never wanted in the first place, time spent sitting in a location, somewhere over the long land, under the darkening sky, waiting to be placed in another point on the leafy landscape, more places to drive over and arrive to.

Gary slowed, but didn’t stop as he passed. 

“Follow me,” he called, and Lynn put the car in drive and followed him mid-way past the algae pond and past the thousand docked RVs. 

Gary signaled a left turn by waving his cholesterol-crusted arm, crablike, over the five-planked bridge.  He lifted slightly off his seat, riding over the larger bumps.  As the elevation increased, they returned to the dusty roads, cutting off the grueling racket of the gravel lot.  Gary reached above his head and switched on the searchlight strapped to the roof of his golf cart, shining an intense round circle into the trees.

Her phone withdrawn, Elle began recording a video of their situation.  Walt became overly conscious of the sound of his voice as he gave his natural commentary, aware that what he said could be preserved for time immemorial. 

“This is how horror movies begin, Lynn.”

They passed several intersections with other nondescript dirt roads, and as they followed Gary around several turns in random directions, Lynn pointed out that their car was now floating in an empty nothing on her GPS screen.  Disparate paths encircled them, ending in various finger-nubbed points, reverting as the computer tried to locate itself.  Walt held his hand to his forehead and scrambled his hanging hair.

“Will we even know how to get out of here in the morning?”

“Hush,” said Lynn.

Visibility diminished the deeper they passed under the trees, but it was obvious that another hour of usable sun remained.

“He’s showing off with that searchlight,” said Elle.  “And taking us around in loops.”

“If you call that showing off,” said Walt.

“These roads could go anywhere, Ellie,” said Lynn.  “But, we don’t seem to be repeating any paths.”

A quick flash caught her peripheral, and expecting a deer, she footed the brake.  Instead, a little boy stepped out half-way onto the road.  He was naked and holding a fishing pole.  A small bluegill flopped around on the line, dangling in the air, and the boy held the line high with his right hand, watching the car with rapt attention.  Once they’d passed, the boy began to chase them, and his bare feet accepted thistles and thorns without care.

Elle turned her camera on the boy, and Walt mumbled out a wordless question.  He gathered his thoughts and said, “Where do you think he came from.”

Lynn drove on, eyes fixed on Gary’s tailgate, emitting little puffs of dry smoke from beneath.  More children ran from out from the bushes, and one group of girls screamed in a way that whalers might describe Cannibal songs, from back when the world was wilder, lacking cultural sensitivity. 

The few who wore clothes wore torn rags, dark with mud and filth, as though dragged along the ground.  One boy wore overalls, but he may have been older, as he was a head taller and had more teeth than the rest.  Their hair, if cut, seemed more ripped shorter than chopped, and frizzed where sweat and humidity hadn’t matted it down.  They were messy, thought Elle, in the way that every child wishes to be, blissfully ignorant of anything in the world that may be better than where they were and what they were doing now.

Five children flanked Gary’s golf cart from behind, and he made clicking animal noises which the children enthusiastically repeated.  They kicked up rocks with their shoeless feet, and ran right alongside Lynn’s car, not afraid of falling under.  A bruise-cheeked boy with a large red birthmark over his eye smacked the side door with a knotty stick, thick enough to use as a handrail in a stairwell.  The group of children trailing behind picked up stones and lobbed them through the air, raining them on the windshield like a storm of arrows.

Lynn break-checked them and two or three children collided with the bumper before she took off again.  She stuck her head out the window and flung her arm, shooing them away.  She swatted a cluster of pebbles tossed at her face like shot and threatened to beat the children’s asses.  She heard Gary laughing from the gut, chugging along on his toy before her.  The children did not attack him.  In fact, one was holding his hand, being led along the way.

 

The town could not be seen through the forest until the moment they rode in.  The canopy was higher here, but there were just as many trees as anywhere else.  One of the houses was constructed from sheet-metal and branches, but most of the others were legitimate.  Some were built by hand, log cabins and stone huts.  Others were assembled by combining the hauled portions of condemned homes, and were like Frankenstein mansions, pieced together.  The houses formed a horseshoe around a central fire-ring, and despite the enclosed arrangement, the settlement seemed lively, as people wandered about everywhere.  Two men greeted the intruders as they passed, leaning against a stripped white birch, drinking from a bottle of whisky.  A couple resting in rockers turned to see the commotion from their sizable porch, wrapped around their home.

Smoke wafted from both active and extinguished fires, and a group of knatty women stood beside four men holding instruments typical to the scene- a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo, and a fiddle.  They stopped their song to watch the trio pass.  Everybody stopped what they were doing and watched Gary lead the luxury though. 

The children disbanded as suddenly as they’d appeared.  The pied piper would lead them no further.  And, a tension eased once Lynn was clear of the houses.  The villagers’ shoulders loosened.  They turned their backs and resumed their conversations.  A shirtless woodchopper split a log.  Walt heard the banjo’s metallic sprint continue flowing in the distance, contrasting greatly with the heady trip echoing from the radio, draining into static.  The fire-pit circle laughed at an unknown joke, most likely about them, and the children watched the car disappear from the invisible, impassable border of their town.

After a few minutes uphill, Walt pointed out a baby spruce with two branches, like bare legs.  “If that’s Green Boots, we’re in the death-zone.  I don’t need a corpse-marker to know that.”

“Who were those people?” asked Elle, looking up and up.  “Where is he taking us?”

 

The trail twisted past other intersecting roads, and then they turned left out of the woods, into the vibrant green.  The field was well-manicured and high up on the hill.  The road disappeared under the grass, became swallowed up by nature, and Gary carried on without hesitation, as though the road continued straight ahead without ever dropping out.  Lynn followed suit, and the car rose higher up onto the flat plateau where islands of dense trees were left to grow in pleasing gardens.  The wind whipped the grass around like a wave, and the spherical canopies of the trees danced and swayed like the hips of Spanish dancers.  A patch of wild wheat kept time with rhythmic arrowhead points, and white parashoots of dandelion swept through the air around them like snow. 

From the top of the slope, they were above the general tree-line, so they could see the vast land in all directions, patched with forests and farms.  The Interstate looked like a model from here, another of humanity’s gleaming toys, and after they drove forward a few more yards, it disappeared from sight under a lower parabola of elm-laced land. 

In the evening sunlight, almost unreal, unnatural in color, these wilds were an endless Eden.  Tendons rose in place, unlocked from their only home.  By the pressure on his finger, Walt noticed Elle was holding his hand, as they were both at their windows, looking out at the view, sharing unspoken joy.

“This is the jackpot,” said Elle, finally.

Gary flicked off his searchlight, now that they were out of the well-lit trees, and he led them to the far edge of the field.  Here, there was a picnic table and a few patches of gravel, presumably for parking, and although the land lipped high enough upward to see completely over the trees, the spot was close enough to the woods below, that a short walk down a gradual slope would allow them to set up their tents under a forest canopy. 

Lynn parked her car crossways on the zenith, and they admired briefly the beauty of the world.

“Sorry to take you the long way,” said Gary, dismounting. 

“It’s a little rough for some outsiders going through the forest and then through that town, but this is the best place in the county to camp, if you ask me.  Definitely worth the trek.” 

On his feet, Gary was an awkward creature, a forest animal.  He lumbered as he walked, almost wobbled.  But, he was average in that he was tall and thick, like most men back at the RV camp.  His arms and legs were evenly spaced when he stood still, and he concentrated on his stance, and Lynn wondered if he’d been injured once, by the way he moved.

The death of the car’s engine came as a shock to Walt, who hadn’t felt stillness for several hours now.  Like a woken sleepwalker, he had to regain his sealegs, and shake out the tingles.  He had to relearn how to move his arms again, in order to open the door.

When he stepped out, Gary stiffened and fell back on his heels, a cat on a fence.

“There’s three of you?” he asked.

Half out of the car, Walt said, “Yes.”

Gary normalized after a moment, and Walt asked, “Do you think there’s room out here for me?”

“It’s no problem,” said Gary.  “I didn’t see you when I looked into the car earlier.  Just a shock is all, like when you reach for water and get a sip of milk instead.

“I wouldn’t expect to see a man in the backseat either.”

 “Why not?” Walt recoiled.  “I was sleeping, in case we decided to drive tonight, straight through.”

He closed the door and stood taller.  Before this man, Walt felt as though his very presence was an offense, and that in order to not be attacked on every side at every chance, he’d have to make this guy know that he wouldn’t take his shit.

“Driving through,” repeated Gary, grinding his teeth.  His mouth missed its sprig of long grass.  “Where you folks headed?”

“Brooklyn,” said Elle, closing her door gently now.

Lynn didn’t address Gary, but once free from the car, turned to soak up the vista in the open air.  She stretched her arms high into the stream, allowing the wind to ripple her loose sleeves.  Birds darted like brown boomerangs, not so high above them.  Butterfly height here.

“The big city,” said Gary.  “Never been there.  Pittsburgh once.  Punxsutawney more often than not.”

“Walt has a job interview,” said Elle, introducing him with her hands, “so we’re driving out to see if he can find some work.  Lynn has some family in the city, so we’re going to stay with them for the week as well.”

Gary smiled cordially.

“That’s nice,” he said.  “You’ll make a nice trip out of it. 

“You folks need a wake up call?”

“No, that’s alright,” said Walt.  “We’re planning on leaving around six in the morning.  We don’t want to trouble you.”

“Trouble me?” he scoffed.  “Shit son, I’m up and out before five every day.

“You kids need some firewood?”

“I don’t know if we’ll need it,” said Walt.  “We’ll set up the tents, probably fall asleep in about an hour, and then head on out when we wake.”

“Walt, what would camping be without a fire?” scolded Lynn.  “Mister, can we buy some firewood from you?”

Every time a woman spoke, Gary’s smile enhanced.

“You don’t need to pay for it, darlin’.  And you’re right.  You can’t camp without wood.  I’ll go get you some.  Be back in a jiff.  In the meantime, enjoy the daylight.  We’re losing it quick.”

Instead of returning to his golf cart, he walked out into the field.  Pointing with his entire arm and backpedaling, he said, “My house is just down there, at the bottom of the hill.  This field is my backyard.  Long backyard, but I do the work to keep it short because I like the grass that way.  I led you around the long trail so we wouldn’t get tire tracks all over the place.  I don’t mind if we leave tracks back here, but in the morning, I’d appreciate it if you try to drive back the way we came up.”

He strolled towards his vehicle and as he came closer, he said, “I won’t be long coming back.  And if you happen to need anything in the middle of the night, or if there’s an emergency, you know where you can go to find me.  Just down the hill. 

“I’ll tie up the dogs when I’m down there, too.  Wouldn’t want them wandering up here to find you.  God knows, there’re already enough critters to deal with in these parts.”

Lynn approached Gary with her wallet in hand.

“Before you go, let me pay you for the site.”

Gary tried to start the cart before she got to him, but she was faster than his wrist.

“Fifteen dollars, you said?”

He looked at her with a confused and scrambled face, embarrassed or ashamed to accept her money.  Afraid of women’s money. 

He stuttered.

“Did I say fifteen dollars?” he asked.

He took the bills.

“You should be settled here then,” he sweated, pretending to count the two bills.

Lynn smiled at him, to comfort his way through the transaction.  She patted his arm like a coach would to a little league player and then he stuffed the bills, crumpled, into the front pocket of his jeans.

Gary wheeled quickly down the steep grade of the hill, and Walt watched him roll on at a speed that most might feel uncomfortable maintaining.  A patch of panicgrass sectioned off the land, dividing the tent-grounds from Gary’s house, but even after walking around the concealing bit of breezy prairie, Walt couldn’t see the structure.  He found himself mythologizing it, assuming an old Victorian, something charming and out of Days of Heaven, something a man like Gary might not appreciate.

“Do we feel comfortable camping in somebody’s backyard?” he asked, but the others were far away and couldn’t hear him, and Lynn, Lynn had camped-out in many backyards, the backyards of strangers, all up and down the coast of the mystic Ohio.

 

            “It’s such a beautiful place, Mom.  The hills are almost like Scotland.  I can see everything from up here.

“Of course they aren’t like the Rockies.  Still tall, though.  Everything’s below us in all directions out.  Its like we’re at the highest point in the world.”

            Walt, with his thumbs in his pockets, left Elle to pace about with her ear against the phone.  A low fog hovered above the ground now, and he silently agreed with her as he passed, that he felt a reminiscent tinge of the Scottish highland character here, something old and ghostly, covered in peat, ascending from the moors.

Lynn leaned against her car, staring outward, analyzing the rising Allegheny moon.

            “You hear the crickets?” she asked Walt while he came by, leaning beside her.  “It’ll be dark soon.  The night should fall quickly now.  Let’s get our tents up.” 

            “You check for dents and scratches yet?” he asked, running his finger over the hood.

            “Here’s a ding,” she said, glossing the car’s body.  “Here’s another.”  

She popped the trunk with her fob.

“My dad might be pissed, but Ellie has video evidence, which will help in my case.”

“You don’t seem too, too concerned,” Walt observed.

            Lynn removed Elle’s tent from the trunk and handed it to him.

“Near Knoxville,” said Lynn, “I once saw hundreds of drifters living under a single bridge, like a secret city of the rural homeless.  Still, I was surprised when we drove through that town in the woods just now.  I had no idea that people lived like that.”

She stuck her head deep into the trunk and reached toward the back.

“Not that I’m surprised.  I just wasn’t expecting to see that today, not here.  Not like that.  Established.”

She removed a picnic basket and set it aside, focusing on the arrangement of the items while she spoke. 

“Their world must be so separate from ours, so self-sustained, so completely off the grid.”

            “What I wonder,” asked Walt, “is who hauled their houses here?  Whose cars keep all those trails in tact?  I wonder how off the grid these people really are.” 

“You saw how easily Gary led us through,” said Lynn.  “They were familiar with him.  They let us pass because he was with us.

            “Do you think they’ll try to rob us in the night?” she turned.  “Or do you think they respect Gary, and that his word’ll protect us?”

            Walt choked on a laugh, his propped elbow sliding against the car, collecting its gray grime in a streak on his skin. 

            “I’d never trust a man like that to protect anyone.  Not even himself.  There’s something brutal about him.  I can’t put my finger on it.  It’s a feeling that I have around men like him.”

            “He doesn’t respect you.  You don’t know the country, Walt.  Your incompetency sweats off you here.”

            “This is different than the country,” he said.

She took her bag and closed the trunk, and then they walked together down the hill toward the thin edge of the forest, carrying the contained tents, slung over their shoulders like golf clubs.  Walt looked up at the setting sun, where the rays streaked like magnificent ribbons through the altocumulus.

            “I’m not going to get this job,” he said. 

            Lynn squinted against the bright nothing, and replied, “Not with that attitude.”  Her response was automatic and meant to irritate, and she succeeded.

“From the bottom of my heart, I think this whole trip is a waste of time,” said Walt.  “I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m cursed.”

“You’re not cursed,” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said, watching his treading feet flail.  “Things have been getting worse and worse for me.  Algorithmically, even.  I have this persistent feeling of doom, like I’m carrying a bat-winged shadow on my back, preventing me from achieving success. 

 “Getting this interview was a lucky surprise, but as soon as I heard about it, I knew I wouldn’t get the job.  The universe is showing me a glimpse of the fruit bowl, but it’s going to drag that fruit away, just out of reach, when I go to take a banana.  And, not for the first time, either.  I wonder if I’m being punished for something bad I did, but I don’t understand what that is, except perhaps, for a flaw in my character, in my personality, something intrinsic that I can’t help being.  I was once way up, and now, I’m so down low, that being raised as I was, I naturally default to believing that I’m being disciplined by fate or by God or karma.”

“Fate doesn’t exist,” she said.  “And, neither does karma.  The only thing punishing you is your bad perspective.  I’m not even the one you’re trying to convince, and I know I wouldn’t give you the job.  You’re a fatalist from the onset, so why would I want you on my team? 

“Are you fishing for pity?  Did your mother only show you affection when you were sick?”

He grunted, resisting the urge to throw her down the hill.

 

“If you have no hope, then why did we go all this way?” she asked.  “It’s fine for me, I get to see my aunt, but why are you wasting what little money you have?”

“I have to try to get the job,” he said, “if not just for the look of it.

“You make me out to be a joke, but I’m not a joke.  I’m struggling for essential resources.  And I care what Elle thinks about me.  Your counsel with her isn’t helping my case.  It’s difficult to convince others to love you when you have no power.  They fall off of you, when they were attached so tightly before.  Even when you’re not around, whispering in her ear, I look at her and I see the rope between us rotting.  She liked me fine when I was active, when I was in school, but now I’m buried under debt and I’m unemployed.  It embarrasses her to introduce me to people.  It embarrasses her to think about who I am and why she’s with me.  So, what use am I to her if I don’t try for this job?  What use am I to myself?  I’m forced to interview through circumstance, for a role I won’t receive, because they’re the only place in thousands who have even opened their doors to meet me.”

He adjusted the strap over his shoulder and increased his pace to match with Lynn’s until they reached the shaded bottom of the hill.  Then, he threw his tent on the ground.

“I think you just wanted a nice vacation,” she said, “and this was an excuse to take one.  I see it as your tendency to over-reach, in action.  Most people would take to whatever job they could find, and stick with it, but you have your expectations set too high.”

“I’ve taken whatever jobs I can find,” he said, “and they aren’t good enough.  You become more entrapped.  The money doesn’t even out.  People come to associate you as the factory-worker, when in your head, that doesn’t represent who you are at all, and this dysphoria smolders your potential while you watch the years go by.

“I never thought the economy could kill, but I can feel it trying, pushing at my chest, squeezing out all the life inside.  I’m not the exception that I thought I’d be when I was young.  There are rules we’re trapped within, containing our lives, and they aren’t working in my favor.  I’ve never asked so many people if I could work for them.  I’ve never asked so many people for help.  And, I’ve never endured so much silence and rejection in return.  I’m not the only one I hear singing this song.  It’s a song for our generation.  We wanted more.  We were raised content, and who would ever want to feel too-content for long?  Even when you have everything you need, too much contentment leads to stagnation, and stagnation on to death.  I strove for an unobtainable future because I’d been brought up to chase it.  And, this over-reaching ruined me.  You’re right, I’m an over-reacher, and because of it, I’ve been thrown into a debt I can’t repay, like Icarus toward the sun, and it’s made me feel shamed and laughed at for attempting to realize my plans in the first place.

“But, it didn’t feel like over-reaching at the time.  It felt like going to school.  Why is the price-tag for an education a ruined lifetime?”

“Yes, our country has a debt crisis,” Lynn said, with annoyance.  “But that’s the market, and you chose to take on that debt.  At least you have that degree you aren’t using.  And, at least you aren’t living in the woods like those people over there, Walt.  You’ve been better off than they’ve been for their entire lives, even in the situation you’re in now.  Don’t pretend like you aren’t rich enough.”

“Driving here,” he said, jaw askew, “we saw so many sprawling roads and houses, all wasted and emptied, abandoned.  People have it worse than I do, sure.  Who would help anyone, when so much energy has to be spent looking out for yourself and your own? 

“The nation’s attitude is ruthless against itself.  Our modern spirit encourages despair instead of strength.  So many people I know feel like they don’t belong here anymore.  They’re shown how they aren’t wanted.  They can’t afford to live.  Some never could.  The masses elected Nero because they wanted to be like him.  A wealthy man to make everybody wealthy.  A man who gets away with anything he wants, scandals that would bury other men, all because what he says goes.  Another lie, while all the wealth we’re missing seems to show up in his hands. 

“We’re surrounded by active shooters that we’ve bred, hate rallies, oil pipelines.  People screaming over fences about who’s fault it is that the world’s dropping into disarray.

“It’s sundown in America, and after the night, after we fall into our dreamless sleep, I can only hope we’ll wake again, un-murdered by the hoard who left our world raving in the mess it’s in.  This was a country where once all were welcomed, by intruders.  Now, even those born into the system, on the soil, are unwelcome.  We’re all intruders, and nobody is trusted.”

            His eyes looked dusted to her, like charcoal and clay.  

“I’ve lost all sense of hope and all expectation for the future.  I can’t take for granted that the dawn will come again, not in times like these.”

Under the dark shadow of the canopy, Lynn found a patch of flat land near the bank of a flowing creek and removed her shoes to feel the ground with her bare toes.  Looking up the hill,  Walt saw the clearing and the corner of their car, where Elle was looking past them and above them, still on the phone.  She was front-lit by the summer sun, and standing within the beams, shown as fully and as clearly as the eye can arrange, as whole as a person can be seen.  And, Walt didn’t recognize her. 

Only two years ago, he’d taken her picture in a field of yellow wildflowers, her smile like a Renaissance painting, and as he’d captured the light and stilled the rectangular moment, he’d thought about how they belonged to the same body and mind, and how they would remain so until the end. 

But, the end had already come for them, and she was not same to him, and her body held a different type of warmth than it had before.

She won’t stay with me for long, he thought.  If I don’t get this job, she’ll leave me.  She’s already tried before.  And, if I do get the job, I won’t earn enough.  It won’t solve anything for us.  She might stick around for a few years, but we’d never recover from the damages incurred.  Our life together will never be how it used to be.  We are dead.

            “A little rocky for my taste,” said Lynn, surveying the grounds, “but it doesn’t matter to me.  The elevation is right.  Just stack an extra blanket or sleeping bag under you to buffer.”

            “I’m not worried about it,” said Walt, shaking his head.  “Its only for a few hours.  Can’t be worse than the back seat of that car, as long as it doesn’t get cold.”

            Lynn opened her bag and removed the spikes.  Then, she withdrew the floppy carcass of her tent and shook it out.           

“A few times,” she said, “I’ve slept on the ground without cover or a sleeping bag, just to see what it would be like to really rough it, without comfort or amenities.  I’ve slept on fallen trees, tilted off the ground, leaning against boulders.  Wake with the ants.

            “Sometimes you have to do things,” she said, kicking the spike down into the soil, “to prove to yourself that you don’t have limits.  That in a survival situation, you could sleep on the ground if you had to, riddled with tree roots, that you could sleep curled around a bough, high off the ground.  You never know what you’ll have to do to survive.

            “And sometimes, it’s best to know how to sleep through a storm, since you cannot stop the rain.”

 

            Lynn’s tent was up before Walt’s, and Elle came down to help him finish.  The two tents were about ten feet apart, and Lynn’s was bigger and looked professional, photogenic, like an advertisement.  Walt’s looked wrinkled, like it needed to be ironed, and the loops kept slipping out from the supporting poles, bringing the whole dome collapsing inward. 

            But, with Elle’s assistance, the tent was finally raised, and they walked together up the hill to retrieve some linens from the car.  On the way, they heard a forced, falsely-amiable voice, and once over the apex, they found Lynn, standing by the beaten golf cart with Gary.  He’d attached a little trailer to it and had filled the trailer with wood.

            “About time,” said Gary, arms akimbo.  “That must be a record.  Longest tent pitching in history.  I watched you from up here, struggling.”

            Gary’s smile publicized Walt’s ineptitude more than his throat, and Walt walked past, saying, “I don’t camp often, no.  And, this isn’t my tent.”

            “You need an instruction manual?” asked Gary, reaching into the mini-trailer and tossing out a few stumps and planks.  A small banged-up fire-ring had already been thrown onto the ground in a spot burned away, black and yellow, where the surrounding grass was dead.

            “I don’t suppose you know how to build a fire either,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll do it for you if you want.”

            “That’d be great,” said Lynn, “we could use the help.”

            “Do you have any lighter fluid?” asked Walt, searching around in Gary’s cart.

            “Lighter fluid?  Shit boy, you’d ruin the fire then.  It’s got to smell clean.”

            He broke a board of the yellow-red wood over his knee, and tossed the split pieces beside the rusted ring.

            Elle came from the car with a pile of blankets and asked Walt for assistance.  He took a portion and then they walked together down the hill toward the tent.

“He doesn’t seem to like you,” she said, once they were out of earshot.

            “Nobody seems to like me very much these days,” Walt replied.

            Elle dipped her face down, resting her nose in the soft blanket bunched-up in her arms.  She took in the fresh, chemical scent of the laundry detergent hiding in the fibers.

            “He’s everything you hate,” she said, returning.  “Country boy, race car jacket, insensitive, assumed ignorant.  But, so far, he’s already proven useful and polite.”

            “Polite to you,” said Walt.  “He expects there’s an off chance he’ll sweep you off your feet.”

            Elle didn’t argue.

            “You came rolling up here with two girls.  Aside from his mother, I doubt any woman’s ever let him be in a car with her for more than thirty seconds.

            “He doesn’t know who you are or where you’ve been.  You come from a different world than he did.  You’re unpredictable.  He doesn’t know how to read you, except as another bull in his way, a competition.  He’s threatened by you.”

            “I wish he’d leave us alone,” said Walt, glancing over his shoulder.  “I’m not a bull, and I don’t like trouble.

“I hope he goes back home as soon as the fire’s up.”

            “I think he’s going to try to stay awhile,” said Elle, looking back with Walt.  “You don’t need to be psychic to know what’s on his mind.  We’re not losing him tonight.”

            They organized their tent, made it as homey as possible, and when they went back up the hillside they saw that Gary already had a small fire of kindling and newspaper going.  The night, as Lynn had predicted, was falling fast, and the rest of the logs had been unloaded from the trailer and were strewn in unorganized stacks on the ground nearby.

            “Do you know what kind of wood this is?” asked Gary, once Walt and Elle were settled, standing beside the fire.  Nobody knew the answer, although the smell was familiar and pleasant.

            “Of course you wouldn’t know,” said Gary.  “It’s cedar wood. 

“The Indians around here used to burn it in ceremonies.  The sparks that rise can be read for symbols of the future.  The sparks are the voice of the ancients, the deceased, speaking to the living.”

            And, thick orange sparks were surging, like Chinese lanterns, high into the darkening night.

            “The wood burns too quickly to use for long, though.  That’s why I also brought some common maple.  I’ll add that on once the fire starts to go out, and then it should burn for quite a long time.”

            Elle crossed arms with Lynn, and Walt remained in place near Gary.  He admired the cedar’s reaction to the heat, and meditated on the Native American tradition which may or may not have been true.  While his mind was on the topic of mysticism, Walt decided to probe Gary with internal judgment, to extract what essence he could sense about the man’s character.  Without looking at him, without speaking, Walt imagined giving Gary waves of psychic pleasantry, blue lines that undulated from his brain into his new acquaintance’s.  Walt hoped that the mental flow would be accepted and he watched, from inside his head and out, as Gary closed off and turned away.  The man would do no business with Walt.  

While others sometimes accepted the flow and gave back, Gary seemed enraged about the prospect, like he understood what Walt was imagining, and there would be no peace between them.  Gary surrounded his skull with high defensive barriers, walls to sever trade.  If he had anything to share, it would be with the women, and even then, that kindness would not be a true kindness, but a deception, a lure to quick intimacy, a default set in Gary’s character, down at his basic core.

            Whether using this plane of intuition to test another’s character is reliable or fair is one argument, thought Walt, sure, but intuition drives real actions between others, perhaps more than vocal conversation in most events, as it’s close to impossible to convert someone who’s made up their mind about one side of an argument.  And the deep coldness, the deep unwelcoming that Walt felt inside of Gary now, showed him that there was nothing that he wished to extract from this man, and there was nothing that he could give to Gary that Gary wouldn’t waste or find unneeded and ridiculous.  Gary was closed off.  And, Walt felt this closure, and he backed away from this mocking, overly self-assured, dangerous first impression. 

            Gary departed with a grunt, and pulled a few folding chairs out from the golf cart.  He carried them over and placed them around the fire. 

            “How many of you were there?” he asked, zipping around with a pointer and pinky finger, counting.  “There aren’t four of you?”

            “It’s very obvious,” said Walt, “that there are three of us.”

            “Hmm,” said Gary.  “I could have sworn that there were four of you.  Three ladies and one gentleman.  I brought four chairs.”

            “Well, you’re very welcome to sit with us a bit and enjoy the fire,” invited Lynn.

            “That’s polite of you,” he said.  “I don’t want to crash your party, but if we have enough chairs out here, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be used.”

            “You can use my chair,” said Walt.  “I’m not going to stay up much later, especially if we’re still aiming to leave here at six tomorrow.”

            Gary situated the chairs so there was a gap where the smoke tended to billow.  Two chairs were on the northern side of the circle, and two were on the southern.  Gary was the first to sit down, and the others followed as a unit.  Elle took a seat next to Walt, and Lynn took the seat next to Gary on the other side, almost another continent away.

            “I think it will be a good night tonight,” said Gary, looking up to the heavens.  “It’s a shame you have to waste it by turning off and going to sleep so early.”

            “I’ve seen many beautiful nights,” said Walt.  “I have more important things on my mind right now than one beautiful night.  It can be sacrificed for the greater good.”

            “Nothing is more important than a beautiful night,” said Gary, and then nudging Lynn with his elbow, “except maybe a beautiful girl.”

            “If I get this job,” said Walt, “it’ll mean a lot of great things for us in the future.”

            “Well, if that’s the case,” said Gary, “I wish you luck.

            “Is your interview tomorrow?  You’re a far distance away if it is.”

            “In three days,” said Walt.

            “And you’re resting now?”

            Fireflies were glowing in the field, like stars bursting forward into existence and then simmering out, energy cut.  Walt saw that Elle was watching them in the mesmeric way that she often watched creatures of the hidden world, and he wondered what she was thinking about them.

“From another perspective of time, if the life of the stars appeared so fast and distant, like the fireflies, like if the night were the universe, and the flies were stars, how quickly lived would our small, human lives be lived?”

            “We used to call them Lightning Bugs,” said Elle.  “In the south. 

            “I went to the Smokies with my family a few years ago.  Every summer, the fireflies gather there and synchronize their lights.  You stand in the middle of the forest, and in the dark, the lights come on all at once, far away from you.  They’ll go out, and immediately, more take over, closer.  Those live, alight, go out, and the next wave comes, closer, and then closer.  Finally, you’re surrounded on all sides by a thousand glowing lights, and they hover and bob like magical spells around you.  They go out all at once, and then the woods behind you glow, and it keeps going down the line, all the way to the end.  And, once the lights go out at the end of the forest, they come on again in the front, and they sweep closer and closer to you like before, lights off and on, surrounding you, and leaving, holding you and letting go.  I really can’t comprehend it.  From above, it must look like a brainwave on a monitor.  All the fireflies know, instinctually, when to ignite.

“They contain more within them than we can even know.”

She looked into the fire, and imagined faces that, as a child, she claimed she could see in the flames.

“The woman who found them kept the season a secret for over fifty years.  Once she grew old, and realized that she may not live much longer, she told a friend for the first time, one of the strangest things in nature that she’d ever seen.  I like to imagine her, walking out into the forest every year alone, surrounded by the secret of the fireflies, just her, surrounded by their pulsing light.”

Gary held up his hand, an orator.

            “The strangest thing I’ve seen in nature,” he said, “are people. 

“You think fireflies are smart?  Well, they’ve got nothing on people.”

            “Most people would probably agree that humans are smarter than fireflies, yes,” said Walt.  “But, I think that’s missing her point.”

            “You folks are going to the city tomorrow,” said Gary.  “You’d call that nature, right?  Sure, some people might say the city is everything that nature isn’t, and when they leave the city, they’re leaving to get back into nature.  But, I say, why keep them separate, town and country?

“You would call a termite mound a part of nature, but the termites might call it their city.  We’re animals too.  Using bits of the ground to put up walls and houses and roads.  Beaver dams.”

            The moon was rising higher, and the sky was turning a strange torn auburn, dynamic across the velvet horizon.

            Gary slapped his leg.

            “The fire always makes people talk the same sort of talk, don’t you think?  It opens up channels in the mind. 

“You kids want a drink?  Might make the talk a little better.  I brought some sangria up with me.”

            “You brought sangria?” asked Lynn. 

            On the back of the golf cart was strapped a small container, like an unplugged ice box.  Opening it, Gary rooted around to the bottom of various, spider covered objects, until he came to a magnum-sized bottle of a well-known and often avoided three dollar wine.  With the other hand, he removed an unopened bottle of vodka, set it down, and removed a party-size package of clear plastic cups.  He returned to the fire, bearing all of these items, and distributed cups to Elle and then to Walt.  He untwisted the cap from the bottle of wine and poured for both of them, and then reached for the vodka, which he’d set on the ground.

            “It’s fine,” said Walt.  “I’ll just take the wine.”

            “You’ll just take the wine?” he asked.  “Well, that won’t get you anywhere.”

            “Same for me,” said Elle.

            He looked at the two like ungrateful dinner-party guests, and then he took his collection over to Lynn’s side. 

            “Well, I know that somebody over here will join me.”

            “Only a tad,” cringed Lynn.  “I probably don’t need as much as you do.”

            “You do want some of the real stuff?” he asked, holding up the vodka so the contents sloshed and made a jugging sound under the neck.

            “Well, it wouldn’t be sangria without it, now would it?” she asked. 

He gave her a large splash, a splash that most might deem a heavy-handed pour, diluting the deep, dyed color of the wine.

            Gary took a seat in his chair and once settled, he filled his glass to the brim, mostly with vodka.

            “You go on a lot of trips with your family?” he asked Elle.  “You seem like you have some camping know-how.”

            She smiled politely and nodded.

            “Yes, we used to go on quite a few trips, growing up.  The Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Jasper, the Willamette Valley.  I’ve not been on nearly as many trips as Lynn, though.  She grew up traveling the countryside.”

            Gary was draining his glass, so he didn’t stop Elle to change the subject to Lynn, as Walt felt, he wanted to do.

            “My parents used to meet nearby, here in Du Bois, when they were dating.  It was the half-way point between Long Island where my dad lived, and where my mom grew up in Kentucky.  Since we were traveling this way, and Lynn wanted to camp, I thought it would be nice to stay in Du Bois like my parents used to.  Kind of bring my life full circle, and see a bit of my roots.”

             Gary swallowed hard, and shook the shock of the drink away from him. 

            “This isn’t Du Bois,” he croaked.  “That’s still another twenty, thirty minutes away.”

            “We thought it would be close enough,” interrupted Lynn.  “There was traffic on the Interstate, and it was no use to go any farther just to sit still.”

            “You made a wise decision,” he saluted.  “You’ll see once you’re in Du Bois, it’s just like everywhere else up and down the road.  Franchises, parking lots, and malls.  At least you have a nice view of the country from up here.  In the morning, if it’s clear, I’ll lend you some binoculars and you can try see the edge of Du Bois.  You may have to stand on that rock over there, maybe prop one of these chairs up on the rock.”

            The view now, Walt noticed, was of darkness, and only darkness.  He listened to the hoot of owls, and wondered how he’d missed the color’s departure.

            “My parents like Du Bois,” said Elle.  “It holds a place in their hearts.  They talk about it like a dream.”

            “A dream,” huffed Gary, coughing up spittle.  “I guess different places mean different things to different people.  You’ll see it tomorrow, there’s nothing there.  Nothing exciting.  Well, it never excited me all that much, really.  It’s just another place to buy lumber and ammo.”

            He looked at Lynn too long and smiled with darkened teeth.

            “Don’t you all think it’s a little too quiet out here?  Maybe we could liven this party up?”

            “How so?”

            “The radio,” he said.  “You think we could turn on your car radio?”

            “I suppose so,” she said.  “What do you like to listen to?”

            “Right now,” he said, “Classic Rock.  But, in the day time, only Country.”

            She rose and went to the car.  She turned the key backward and twisted up the volume knob.  All that increased was the boiling sound of static.  She changed the channels, uncovering new styles of fuzz, some quiet and muted, and others aggressive, like hands tearing paper.  

Gary refilled his glass with more vodka.  Walt and Elle had both only pretended to take a sip, out of courtesy, and placed their cups on the ground.  Each eyed their wine, and each eyed each other.

            “You’d think that up here, we’d get channels as clear as day.  Try 88.9,” hummed Gary.

            “I passed it already,” said Lynn.  “I don’t think anything is clear.”

            “I have some songs on my phone,” offered Walt.  “We could plug that in.  No Classic Rock or Country, though.”

            “What’ve you got,” asked Gary.

            “Local bands from back home.  Lately, all I listen to are bands that my friends are in.”

            “Nothing else?” asked Gary. 

            “It’s the culture,” said Walt.  “Why would I listen to what big money wants me to hear, just so I can fill their wallets more, when I have a community all around me making music that I can relate to on a personal level?  I know the musicians, and we go through the same things.”

            “Plug it in,” said Gary.  “Let’s see how good your friends are.”

            “I don’t think you’re going to like it,” said Elle, but Walt brought his phone to Lynn, who plugged it into the car.

            “What would you say this music’s like?” asked Gary.  “Is it loud?”

            “I would call it art loud,” said Elle.

            The music blasted in over the speakers, colorful and energetic, and when Lynn and Walt sat down in their seats, they found that a new tension had grown.

“I hate being the DJ,” Walt admitted.  “Introducing new music to people always leaves me a little nerve-wracked.  Your choice of song reveals who you are as much as the melody reveals the songwriter.”

            “I can see why you like the music,” Gary nodded.  “But, it’s garbage. 

“It’s like zombies throwing paint onto a crowd.”

            Lynn defended calmly, “This band finds cohesion by exploring new paths to follow, like trailblazers.  They use more variation than the usual formula you might hear in the radio hits.  I’ve always liked this band.  But, maybe you’d have to see them live to get it.  Or maybe you’d have to know them like we do.”

            “You sound like a Dead-Head,” grunted Gary.  “You can’t defend bad music when it’s playing right beside me and I can hear it.  Can you turn it down? 

“You can leave it on, but turn it down.”

            Offended, Lynn stood and returned to the nearby car.

            “I didn’t think it was that loud.”

            Gary gargled down more of his Sangria, and chuckled at an unknown joke in his drink.  The music played on, quieter.  Lynn left it at a reasonable volume, so it was in the background, but not inaudible.  The driver’s door was open to allow the sound to pass through, and sitting by the fire, with the car radio supplying the soundtrack of the night, Walt smiled for the first time since they’d left that afternoon.  On a voyage out of town, what had calmed him most were reminders of home.

            Celebratory shouts were heard out in the wilderness.  Firecrackers, or gunshots.  Dogs barking.

            “Is that from the town that we passed earlier in the trees?” asked Lynn.

            “Perhaps they can hear the music,” said Gary.

            He read the concerned look on Lynn’s face.

            “Don’t worry,” he said.  “They’ll leave you three alone.  They usually leave campers alone, as long as no one wanders onto their turf at night.  I drove you through so they’d know not to come up here, to tell them that the field is occupied.  No, if I were you, I’d be more afraid of the bears.”

            He took another head-tilted drink, unable to sip.  He gasped and wiped his mouth, straining for air, red stains on his lips and teeth.

            “They sound like ghouls to me.”

            He gazed around at the group, a storyteller’s look about him.

            “You kids believe in spirits?”

            “It’s fun,” said Lynn, “to believe around a campfire.”

            “The spirits follow fire,” said Gary.  “They’re drawn to it from the other world.  We’ve always called them fireside wolves, the spirits, because they lurk around the ring and come out to live again through people’s speech.  You can’t help but tell your tales around a fire, can’t you?”

            Walt and Elle, with their heads down now, avoided eye contact with the other side of the smoke.  To get their attention, Gary spoke up louder and deeper than he’d spoken before throughout the night.

            “When you’ve lived as long as I have, with the days spent outdoors, you come to see things.  And, not just once.  I’ve seen things many times.  The dead do often revisit the living.”

            Unprovoked by his audience, he continued, “an old friend of mine, Randy Reiter, was killed in the Vietnam War.  We served there together, back when I was younger than you are now.  I survived, but Randy wasn’t lucky.  He didn’t come home. 

“At least, not his body.

            “A young girl went missing in these woods about ten years ago.  She’d come with her daddy in the RV lot, and the last anybody had seen her, she was playing near the edge of the wood.  We had search parties going out, dogs, police, everyone, right here gathered up in this field as home base.  Sheriff Jackson came to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said ‘Gary, nobody knows these woods as well as you.  Will you lead this search-party?’  And, I was a little shy, and I said ‘Okay, Sheriff, you’re right about one thing there.  Nobody knows these woods as well as me.  I’ll find this little girl.’  So, there was pressure on me, a great pressure.  This poor little girl was lost out here, maybe injured.  Her mother was in tears, crying for the whole day at the RV lot. 

            “But, you know, we went out there, and I had all these guys following me, fanned out in all directions.  We had dogs rushing out.  It was just like in a movie.  We went everywhere I thought the girl could go and further.  I checked in all the caves, I checked all the cliffs, to see if she fell from any.  Nothing.  We couldn’t find a single trace, not even a torn piece of clothing, not even a footprint.  It was like she’d vanished.

            “After a few days, everyone had given up and gone home.  Even the girl’s parents had lost hope and left.  But, I kept looking.  You see, I had a feeling that she was out there.  I didn’t think she’d been kidnapped or killed.  I thought she was out there somewhere, where the dogs couldn’t smell her.

            “So, like we’re doing now, right here in this field, I burned cedar, and looked to the sparks for guidance.  I prayed to God for a clue, for a sign, and instead of an Indian Spirit, I saw Randy, young as the day he died.  And, he told me ‘Gary, you’ve got to get that girl right now.  She’s hurt, she can’t move, she’s starving, and she’s going to die if you can’t find her in the next few hours.’

            “I said, ‘Randy, it’s midnight.  I can’t see anything.  I’ve looked everywhere around here.  I just don’t know where she is.’”

            “Then, Randy’s ghost came out of the fire here, like a hologram, wearing his boots and camo, and he waved his arm and said, ‘come here, follow me!’ So, I followed him out into the woods there, and not so far from where you’re camping, but very far from where she started her journey, I found her beneath a felled tree with broken leg.  Bone sticking black out of the skin.  I don’t know how that tree managed to fall on her, but that’s what happened, and for some reason, the dogs never found her.  But, I think the dogs never found her so Randy could come back.  He could come back and show me that there is life after death, and that even the dead have concern for the living.”

            He closed his story by draining his cup and then filling it up with more vodka, dipping the bottle too far into his drink and splashing some on his sleeve.

            “Randy came back to me another time.  This time, my good friend Phil was dying of cancer, and I’d forgotten all about how Randy had come to me when the little girl was trapped under that tree.  You see, these miracles happen to us to let us know everything is going to be okay in the end, but we forget, especially when things don’t seem to be going the right way in our lives.

            “Phil was dying, and I couldn’t believe it.  I wasn’t ready for him to die, and I was at the hospital, and he took my hand and said, ‘Gary, you’ve been like a brother to me, you really are the best friend I ever could have asked for.’  And, I went into the other room, and I thought about shooting myself.  I always carry a gun on me, everywhere I go.  I think you’d have to be some kind of idiot not to.  But, that’s the only time I ever thought to turn it on myself.  I’d lost all faith in Jesus, I’d lost all heart and sense of purpose.  My life hadn’t turned out how I’d thought it’d turn out at all.  So I pointed the gun at my face, I put the barrel in my mouth, and then Randy stood there beside me, and he tapped me on the shoulder.  He said, ‘ah, ah Gary.  You don’t want to do that.  It’s not your time yet.  You’ve still got a lot to do in this life.  And, your Momma needs ya.  You don’t want to leave your Momma behind, do ya?’

            “So, I took the gun out of my mouth and then I saw Phil standing beside Randy, and they were smiling, and they shook my hand and said they’d see me some other time in the future, and then I saw a great white light, and that they both had angel wings.  They walked off into the shining horizon, off to paradise. 

            “When I came back into the hospital room, everyone was crying because Phil had died when I was gone, and people like Sheriff Jackson told me that I’d missed his death and I should have been there when he died, but I told them no, I saw him.  When I was in the bathroom, he came to me and told me he was better than he was before, that everything was going to be alright.  The Sheriff asked me what time I’d talked to Phil, and I told him precisely at 6:15.  You see, I always have this watch on me, and I check it all the time.  And, the doctor told me, ‘Damn Gary, that was the time of death.’  So, the first thing my good friend did after he died, was save me from making a stupid mistake.  I’ve never forgotten about the Spirits’ sense.  They’re out there, man, and they’ll come to you if you open your heart.”

            After his story, he burped, and then there was silence, except for the crackling fire.  Elle looked at Walt, and Walt looked at Elle.  Lynn looked at the ground.  Gary got up, taking the bottles with him, and he set them on the picnic table.  He tossed a log of maple into the fire, kicked it around with his steel toe, and sent up sparks from the breathing embers.

            “My grandfather fought in Vietnam,” said Lynn, trying to contribute.  “He has some incredible stories, but he doesn’t like to tell them often.”

            “As he shouldn’t,” said Gary, ambling back to his seat.  “It’s not something that people who lived through it like to remember.”

            “We were in a haunted house one Halloween,” she recalled.  “You know, those places where people dress up like ghosts or famous scary movie monsters?  And we were walking through a red hallway with a lot of doors and terrible people stalking around, jumping out, making noises.  My grandfather looked at me and said, ‘Lynn, do you know what this is supposed to be?’ And I said, ‘No.  What Grandpa?’

            “He said ‘Hell.  It’s supposed to be hell.  I know, because I’ve been there.’

            “And, the only thing I can think he could be referring to is the war.”

            “It was hell,” agreed Gary, “for many.  Then, they treated us like animals when we came back.  It’s a story often told.”

            Walt raised his head.

            “Lynn,” he said.  “Do you think the radio is draining the battery on your car?”

            “I think it’ll be fine,” said Gary.  “I know cars, and the radio doesn’t take that much juice.”

            “What about the lights?  Her door is open.”

            “Nah, should last for a few hours,” he said.

            “I was supposed to have a date tonight, you know that?  The girl comes over here sometimes and we have supper together.  She works in a diner down near Du Bois.  She used to be married to this guy Lenny, but he went to jail for robbing a TV, and she left him.  Now, she comes to see me.”

            “Why didn’t she come out to see you tonight?” asked Lynn, quietly.

            “I don’t know what the deal is,” slumped Gary.  “I kissed her last week, and then she left the house in a rush, and I haven’t spoken to her since then.”

            “You haven’t spoken to her in a week, but she was supposed to go on a date with you tonight?”

            “I’d already asked her before I kissed her, and she’d said yes then, but I’ve called her and left messages on her machine since, and she’s never gotten back to me.  So, I expect I shouldn’t expect her.  

“She’s just a loud-mouthed bitch anyway.”

Walt leaned over to Elle and whispered, “Is it making you uncomfortable, the way he’s looking at her?”

            Elle positioned her mouth closer to Walt’s ear, in a sneaky, head-tilted way, so the other side of the fire wouldn’t notice. 

            “It’s unnerving,” she said.  “We need to end this soon.”

            “Darlin’,” demanded Gary, “I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, bringing those bottles to the picnic table.  Make me a sangria, won’t ya?”

            Obedient, Lynn took his glass and stood.  She showed no shame or unnaturalness pouring more vodka and wine for this man, even in front of her friend.  Gary’s eyes, all the while, remained pressed against Lynn’s ass.  Even when Elle gave him the stern and protective stare of a good friend defending, he didn’t look away.  He observed with privilege, hypnotized and feasting, deserving, and Lynn didn’t notice, or show signs of noticing, even when Walt cleared his throat.

Asleep through the storm.

            Lynn filled up a small glass for herself, and noticed that the magnum of wine was almost empty already.  She gave the bottle a swirl.

            “It’s ok,” said Gary, “there’s another in the golf cart.  We can go all night if we want to.  I always keep a stockpile of booze at home, just over there.”

            He pointed to his house again, as if he hadn’t already pointed to his house a hundred times.

            “I don’t know if we’re going to make it all night,” said Walt.  “We have to get up early in the morning tomorrow, remember?”

            Gary threw his arm out to shoo Walt. 

            “We’re already well on our way, and there’s no getting off this train once it leaves the station.”

            Lynn returned with his drink and he patted her on that jean-framed obsession which had filled his world for the last minute or so, and she didn’t seem offended.

            ‘He’s just an old man,’ her face seemed to say. 

            ‘Is she into it?’ wondered Walt.  ‘Is she into being harassed like this?  She isn’t rebelling at all.  If anything, she’s scooting closer, being drawn in by his drunken dominion.’

            ‘No,’ Elle’s gaze told him.  ‘I’ve seen this before.  This is her natural defensive response.  She’d rather see him happy than upset, and she’s doing this to save the situation, to prevent a scene.’

            ‘I’m seeing major flaws in this tactic,’ Walt stared.  ‘This cannot escalate much further.  Doesn’t he know he’s in the wrong?’

            “When Vietnam ended,” said Gary, closed off, “and everyone was being shipped back home, it was my job to kill the dogs.”

            He sat up straight in his seat, with pride.

            “You may call me heartless, but that’s why they asked me to do it.  These dogs were trained to kill.  They couldn’t continue living.  They were dangerous weapons.  So, we took them all behind a hanger, lined them up.  They gave me a pistol, and I popped them off, one by one.  The dogs were extraordinarily well-behaved.  We asked them to sit, and they didn’t so much as bark at hearing the bullets.  Maybe they were used to the guns, having spent all of their lives in the war.”

            He chuckled softly and looked around, over his head and down at his feet.

            “So many stories to tell about this place,” he said.  “We once had a music festival, with Seattle grunge bands.  All these kids smoking drugs.  Their music was kind of like this music that you’re playing here, only theirs was better.  They had a lightshow, fire spinners, fog machines. 

“I’m good friends with the sheriff, and he helped us monitor it, keep it legal.  But, we had all kinds of kids like you coming out here and enjoying the property.  Must have been about fifteen years ago now.  I don’t know many of those people anymore.  I don’t know where they’ve gone to, or what’s become of them.  It seems to me that everybody leaves at some time or another.  Your life will be one way, and then it will change and never go back to what it was.

            “There was this time we had this Japanese man come and visit, and he went hiking in these woods, off all on his own.  Now, I’m warning you, don’t ever go hiking out in these woods all on your own, not unless you’re looking to get lost, or attacked by bears.  If you do go hiking tomorrow, bring a gun with you.  The stupidest thing is to ever leave home without a gun. 

“Well, this Japanese guy went out hiking without a gun, and he disappeared, and we had to form a search party.  We got all these police out here, and we all met right here in this field, and I marched a whole line of people out into the woods.  The dogs couldn’t find this guy, and the Sheriff gave up, and the party all left after two days of searching.  But, I knew he’d be out there, so I went out one night with my flashlight, and I was digging around some areas that we’d missed, and damn it if I didn’t find him.  He was howlin’ like a wolf because some large animal had chased him off the trail and bit his leg.  I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, he was Japanese, but I picked him up and carried him back to my house.  Momma called the police and Sheriff Jackson told me I was a hero, and the doctor said I’d saved his life.  The bite might have become infected on his leg without me to bring him back in time and give him hydrogen peroxide.  They weren’t even sure what kind of a bite it was from, and he described a large animal with red eyes that he’d never seen before.  Red-Eyes, we called the beast.  It’s out there.  We don’t know everything that’s out here in the woods, you know.  There are many mysteries surrounding us, just like Red-Eyes.

“And then that girl, Lenny’s old girl, was here, and she was cooking for me and Momma, and we kept hearing noises out in the trees, and I kept thinking of Red-Eyes and all those kids smoking drugs up here under that big circus tent, readin’ my palm and telling me I’d only live to eighty years old.  And, I wondered if it’s all connected.  Everything’s all connected, you see.”

            “You tired?” asked Walt.  

Elle nodded.

            Walt stood.

            “And, I thought about Randy with the angel wings when I was out with Lenny’s girl back here in this field, looking for the creature.  I told her I saw the angel wings on her already.”

            “Thank you for the fire and for the stories,” said Walt, “but it’s time for Elle and I to turn-in for the night.”

            Gary’s face sealed up tight like cork.

            “You guys are closing out?”

            “Yeah,” said Walt.  “I’m feeling beat.”

            “You haven’t touched your drinks,” he said.  “Are you not having a good time?”

            “No,” said Walt, “we’re having a wonderful time.  But, it’s late, and it’s time for us to go to bed.”

            Lynn stood, as well. 

            “It has been nice Mister, Gary.  We really appreciate all that you’ve done for us.”

            “I’m not ready to go in yet,” he said, sternly toward Walt, and then betrayed, toward Lynn.

            “That’s fine,” she said.  “you can ride the fire out.”

            “Yeah,” he said, looking lost, defeated, deflated and distant.  “I’ll just stay for another drink or two.”

            “Goodnight,” nodded Walt, and he caught up with Elle who’d already begun her descent down the hill toward the tents, avoiding any phatic contact with Gary.

            Lynn took the keys from the ignition, shutting off the background music, and the car lights went out once she closed the door.

            “Thank you!” she waved.  “It really was the nicest time.  Goodnight!”

            Her feet clomped down the hill, where the bending grass collected dew.

           

            In the tent, Walt could feel every rock beneath his back.  Elle was sprawled away from him, only her wrist touching his wrist.

            “I still hear him there,” she said.  “How long has it been now?”

            “Over forty-five minutes,” said Walt. 

“So much for getting any sleep tonight.”

            “I can’t sleep with a maniac like him out there.  He’s talking to himself.”

            “What do you think he’s saying?” asked Elle.

            They were both silent for a moment, listening for any audible word in the angry mush, the only definite words being when Gary spat out an aggressive ‘fucking…’ followed by several metered mumbles, and then another sharp spit of ‘Jesus.’  After a soft rumble, that could have been his volcanic belly, he chanted ‘heroes.’

            “Do you think that Lynn’s awake?” asked Elle.

            “I don’t see how she couldn’t be,” said Walt.  “How could anybody sleep, listening to this?”

“We’re defenseless here.  He says he’s got a gun.   He’s said it several times.”

            “He’s just a drunk old man,” said Walt.  “He’ll either pass-out soon or go away.”

            “All the heroes die,” they heard, louder.

            “Why did Lynn let him treat her like that?” asked Walt.  “You saw that right?  He stared at her like a stripper, and then he smacked her,” he choked out the word, “ass.”

            “That’s her way of dealing with the situation,” Elle said.  “I wouldn’t have acted that way, and I know you wouldn’t have acted that way if you were in her shoes, but that’s how she deals with things.”

            “It’s like she was completely unaware that anything was wrong,” said Walt.  “Am I the crazy one here?  Do you think I’m mistaken, being alarmed like I am?”

            “No,” said Elle.  “I think this has turned into a bad situation.”

            “Brought upon by our unnecessary kindness to a stranger,” finished Walt.  “Here’s to being in the right, and to being in the wrong.  If we’d told him to get lost right up front, maybe he would have stayed away.”

            “Or maybe he would have snuck up on us in the night, murdered you, and raped us,” said Elle.  “You never know how things are going to go down.  At least now we know that he has problems, and to be on our guard.  At least we know where he is outside.  We have the upper hand.”

            “The bears,” they heard Gary grumble.

            “Next time, we’re staying in a hotel,” said Walt.  

“The reason we haven’t heard from Lynn, and the reason we’re still pretending to be asleep out here, is because she doesn’t want to be blamed for this.”

            “Why should she be blamed for this?”

            “She’s the one who wanted to go camping.”

            “It’s not like she predicted that things would come to this.  Nobody could.”

            “You could equally be blamed for this, for inviting her,” said Walt.  “I never would have come here if I were calling the shots.  I prevent things like this from happening, by actively avoiding them in the first place.

“This isn’t my fault,” she cried.

“I lose a little work,” said Walt.  “I fall a little out of style, and suddenly, you’re weeping for no reason, you exclude me from everything that you do, the apartment feels like I don’t belong there, like I’m an intruder.  You’ve lost all faith in me, and now I have no say in anything.  I can’t even veto camping.”

             “You’re aggravated and taking your paranoid daydreams too far, like you always do,” she growled.

            “And why shouldn’t I take my thoughts too far?” he asked.  “Envisioning dangerous scenarios is how I protect myself.  Am I not allowed to say what I feel?  Am I not allowed to say what we choose not to say, because we might be too afraid of the repercussions?  I’m in a bad place, and I need a job.  I miss our time in the city, and I want to get us back there.  We never should have left it.  Since we’ve been home, I’ve had no power.  And, now, when trying to get that power back, when trying to return us to our full capacity, you invite her to come here with us? 

“She’s always in the way.  She’s always between us.  I pretend like she’s a friend, but she isn’t my friend.  She’s trying to remove me from your life.  I’d go as far as to say that she wants to take my place.  Or are you as oblivious to that as she was to Gary’s eyes?”

            Elle turned her head toward the corner of the tent, her face against the cold plastic tarp beneath them.

            “This has not been a very nice trip,” she said.  

“I thought it would be great, with you and my friend, in New York.”

            “Every truth has to surface sometime,” said Walt, “and for months now, I’ve felt diminished from your life.”

            He turned his head to the other side, his feet becoming cold under the heavy, damp blankets.

            “Once a couple brings up the very idea of breaking-up, I feel like that’s the end of it.  We’ve been battling it out, but it’s been very difficult for us, very difficult.  Life shouldn’t feel so choked shut.  So dammed.”

            They were quiet under the covers, cold and magmic, a polycephalic organism, looking at the world in opposite directions.

            A loud switch shot through the night and a bright light shone onto their tent, exposing their silhouettes to any outside observer.  As they scrambled in their small quarters, trying to make sense of what was happening, Gary let out a loud ‘weeeew whoooo!’ as harsh as his throat could muster.  The golf cart was parked now at the top of the hill, and the searchlight was on at full power, aimed directly at their tent.

            “What do we do?” cried Elle, hysterical.  Walt grabbed her hand and they laid down still, playing opossum-dead.  Gary called out an incomprehensible mess of shouts and slurs.  Then, they heard the clang of a metal pipe against the side of the golf cart, sending echoes far into the valley.

            “Get out of here!” he yelled.  “Get out of here, bears!”

            Elle hid her face in Walt’s arm and they laid there, tense beneath the covers.  They laid there until they heard the engine start back up.  Gary placed the golf cart in reverse, and the shouts and the clanging of his pipe faded off into the distance.  Walt unzipped the tent.  Putting on his pants as he went, and reaching for his glasses in a pouch at the side, he hoppled barefoot out into the forest.

            “What are you going to do?” she asked.

            “We have to fool him,” he said.  “If he comes back and thinks we’re still in the tent, I’ll hit him with a rock from behind.”

            Walt went down to the creek-bed, and not seeing the water, wound up ankle deep in it.  The cold was jarring to him, and he reached his hands down into the clear stream, finding a large, smooth oval.

            Elle withdrew back into the tent and zipped it closed, and Walt wandered into the trees, following the creek-line, but keeping the tent and the hillside in sight.  Coming up the hill, Walt saw the searchlight darting across the night, competing with the moon.  Gary’s hollers reverberated nearer.  Walt gripped the brick-sized stone tighter in his hand, and looked at its blue color, and imagined that this stone could soon be stained dark with wine, and in this moment, he felt joy in the necessity of his role, as a protector.  He felt brave for having left the tent, with his plan to ambush the drunk.  He hoped Gary would stay away, but no, if Gary came back around, he hoped it would escalate to a marriage between the stone and Gary’s skull.  These murderous impulses, perhaps they are always there, and one wishes secretly for situations of violence to arise, so one can act without thought, primal and base.  Walt understood, with clarity, how all the prior events in his life, and all of those before his life, had led him to this.  His downfall, his unemployment, Elle’s growing distrust, her parents, where they liked to meet on the weekends.  All of it had led him here to strike a man down, to end what he despised.

            The golf cart did come back around, and Walt hid behind a tree, which, like others on the periphery, was thin, none of this being old-growth.  Gary flung his arms around and screamed like a cowboy on a bull.  The golf cart swayed back and forth, and he drove it hard, perhaps wanting to flip it, wanting it crush him and end him.  But, the golf cart didn’t flip.  He drove it to the edge of the hill again, parked it, and reached up over the roof again to point the searchlight down onto the tent.  He screamed and shouted like a jackal, like a coyote, and Walt walked forward, unhidden by the trees, rock in hand.

            Gary hopped out of the cart and swung his metal pipe against the frame several times like a lumberjack chopping down, or like a medieval be-header, armed with an axe, over and over.  But, even in his frenzy, he heard Walt, with gravel underfoot, and he turned the light on its lazy Susan, around to blind the intruder. 

            The light stretched all colors into one, and Walt shielded his eyes with his arm.  With what vision was available, he saw Gary swinging the pipe at the empty bottles on the picnic table, shattering one into the fire, where the embers were still cooking strong.  Walt didn’t slow his approach, and he stepped forward.

            “The hero, Beowulf,” said Gary.  “Look now at the hero, defending his women.  But, you weren’t there.  You weren’t in the war.  If you had been, then you would know.

            “All the men who act like heroes wind up dead.  All the heroes died.

            “I knew many heroes, and they’re all dead.  Even Phil.  He was a hero, and he died.”           

            Walt didn’t slow.

            “Gary, we’re trying to sleep.”

            “Look at the hero,” said Gary.  “Coming like he’s not afraid.  I can see you shaking.  You know what happens to heroes?”

            “Gary,” Walt strode forward, knuckles popping over the stone in hand, “we’re just trying to camp for one night.  We paid you to stay here, and in the morning, we’re going to go away.”

            “You wouldn’t be scared if you were a believer,” said Gary, turning to face Walt fully.  “I saw your face earlier.  You aren’t a believer.  You’ll go to hell when you die.  You think there’s nothing up there, you think there’s nothing after this, but you’re wrong.  I’ve seen it.  That’s why I’m not afraid.  That’s why you’re afraid, and that’s why I’m not afraid.”

            Gary dropped his metal pipe and stepped forward.  “I’m not afraid.”

            Walt heard the zipper open on his tent, and Elle came out to see them.

            The men were close on the hill now, both stepping with caution toward each other.  Their faces were hidden by spider-legged tree branches, blackened cracks in the sky beyond.

            “Gary,” said Walt.  “I’m telling you now to go home.”

            “I am home hero,” Gary said.  He looked down at Elle, and shouted, “here’s your hero!  Don’t you feel safe now?”

            Gary stared Walt down, all the arteries in his eyes pumping thick to capacity, breath heaving through his clomped teeth.  He raised his arms above his head. 

Walt held his arms out to show he had no weapons, and that he’d come in peace.  But, the rock in his hand destroyed that façade, and he didn’t let it go.

            “Gary, be quiet, turn your light off, and go to sleep.”

            “I’m doing you a favor, hero,” he breathed.  “I was scaring away the bears.  You do know there are bears around here, don’t you?”

            “I’m not afraid of the bears,” said Walt.

            “You should be afraid of the bears,” said Gary, closing in.  “Don’t you know what a bear can do to you?”

            He clasped his hands around Walt’s throat, and over Elle’s scream, and Gary’s closing pupils, Walt felt for the first time in his life how a pair of hands felt around his throat, with intent to kill.  But, through this contact, Walt felt that the weakness of the man had been made weaker by the drink, and it wasn’t difficult to brush the hands away like feathers.  He dropped the rock onto the ground, and shoved Gary only hard enough to clear him of his space. 

            “Get out of here,” commanded Walt, and in shame, Gary stumbled around until he found the picnic table.  He put both his hands on the table, shaking it, and knocked the remaining bottle off.

            “Get away from us.”

            Walt turned his back and walked to the tents, tall, and without fear of an assault from behind.  Still, he kept his senses sharp, and listened for the clumsy sound of Gary reaching for his gun.  He ran through the scenario in his brain, imagined the bullet tearing through the bone beside his ear.

            But, Gary didn’t reach for his gun.  Instead, he wailed like the ghouls he wished to become, a ghost story, one of the fireside wolves, and he flipped the picnic table into the fire, and shouted his way back to the golf cart, moaning.  His fun and disjointed screams had become sad and lonesome, indignant howls, and he drove off again to the other portion of the field, his searchlight fixed on the shining stars.

            Once Walt reached the darkness of the wood, and he knew Gary’s eyes were off him, he ran to the tent, where Elle jumped into his arms.

            “Let’s get out of here,” said Walt, quivering. 

            And, Elle ran over to Lynn’s tent, calling her name, “Lynn!  Lynn!” 

            She shook the tent and then unzipped it herself.

            “Lynn, we’ve got to get out of here!  We’re leaving!”

            Lynn rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

            “What time is it?”

            “Time to go,” said Elle.  “He tried to strangle Walt.”

 

            Walt didn’t de-assemble the tent.  He and Elle grabbed their blankets and they left for the car.

            Lynn, without context, who had not woken during the scuffle, turned on her flashlight, put her clothes on slowly, rolled up her sleeping bag, and then folded her tent.

            At the car, Walt found that the car was locked.  Erratic, he and Elle flipped the handle and shouted for Lynn to hurry. 

            And, over the hill, the maniacal golf cart driver wound closer, yelling joyfully again, as though he’d forgotten what he’d recently been through, or had decided to stop caring about it, but knew, somewhere deep down, that he had to get revenge, that it would be fun to destroy something else, anything, again.

            “You left your tent behind,” Lynn said, coming up the hill, and if it had been Walt alone who’d been acting crazy, perhaps she would have come up the hill slower still.

            She unlocked the door with the fob and Elle and Walt dove in.  The searchlight grew bigger, the cart coming closer. 

            And, they felt the trunk door open.

            “The trunk?” squealed Walt.  He looked out the back window where he could see a sleepy Lynn tucking her tent away snugly into it’s allotted spot. 

            “Take a hint from our immediacy here?”

            Elle kicked open the door, and shouted, “Lynn, get in the car!  We’ve got to go!”

            “What’s the big rush?” she asked, dropping into the driver’s seat, annoyed.

 

            The golf cart came close, and tried to chase down the car, but after they pulled away, Walt watched Gary circle around in his yard, a loop of lone insanity, howling. 

Lynn drove back the way they’d entered, and made it to the forest trail. 

            The forest was dark, and the headlights diffused against a strand of mist hovering off the ground, and Lynn tried to remember, calculating, “it was a right turn here, and then this little dip here.”

            “I remember that tree with all the hanging vines,” said Elle.

            “I don’t remember any of this,” said Walt.  “We’re lost.”

            “We’re not lost,” said Lynn.

            On the left side of them, they passed a young girl, standing naked by the trail, her eyes, caught spectral in the headlights.  And they came into the sleepy town.  Smoke rose from the smoldered pits.  None of the windows had light behind them.  But, the people were standing in places that they’d been standing in before.  The men by the tree rose their whisky bottles and cheered.  The women scowled and blew sarcastic kisses off their cigarettes.  The fiddle player kicked the fire and tore his bow across the strings, shrouded in sparks, the devil’s dance. 

            Lynn took the path they’d entered through earlier, passing another child on the right, sitting unoccupied, on a stump, picking at his teeth with a grey rib bone. 

And, none felt relief until they came down the hill and saw the lights of the RVs, like established civilization in the distance.  They came into the camp, where several men were meandering still, and some sat around fires with marshmallows, large men in overalls, wearing trucker hats, clapping hands and raising fists.  These men laughed at the car as it went by, cheersing with their beer cans high in the air, suds flying, another duped intruder, chased out from their home. 

Lynn took her speed higher on the way out than on her way in, and in the field behind the large hand-painted sign, Walt saw the house he hadn’t been able to see before, a small ranch with plastic siding, something blending perfectly into the landscape, so as not to be noticed, even here.  Behind it, in the backyard, the golf cart and its light wound around in circles, high up on the slope.

 

            The trio didn’t speak until they were on the highway, and even then, they didn’t know what to say.

            “I left my tent there,” said Elle. 

            “We could go back,” Walt suggested.

            “Do you think he wanted us to keep the radio on in order to drain the battery out?  Do you think he planned on this from the start?”

            “I don’t know,” said Walt.  “Right now, I couldn’t say. 

“I wonder if he’ll remember in the morning.”

            “Where are we going to stay?” asked Lynn, stoic.  “Where’ll we find a room at this hour?”

            Walt called several places in Du Bois, and he found a hotel willing to take their money.  The stretch of highway between the two exits was long and empty.  To kill the emptiness, Lynn turned up the radio, but hearing only static, she pressed the scan button, and then they all forgot that she’d pressed it.  They stared at the road, watching the yellow lines jump forward at them as the station changed from shade of static to shade of static, then from genre to genre, then from program to program.  Walt tried counting the reflectors on the side of the road and lost count before he even began.

            They checked into their room.  It was basic and clean enough, with two beds.  Lynn took one, and Walt and Elle took the other.  But, despite the close quarters, Walt felt far from Elle on the bed.  He felt she was closer to Lynn’s side of the room and would remain there without him.  He fell asleep, feeling exposed and discarded, and woke later in the night without blankets.  He walked into the bathroom, full of fluorescent lighting and mirrors, and he stood in place on the cold tile.  In the mirror he saw a dark figure standing behind him.  The figure was taller than him, shrouded with a cloak or blurred from existence, but there.  Even in a hotel bathroom, one is an intruder, everywhere in this land.

            “It isn’t wise to expect the dawn.  So light your fires, and see through night.  What stories will you tell?”

 

 

 

           

 

hts,” said Lynn.  “We’d better find a place to camp.”

Banjos blended with talk-radio, while harpsichords hammered into jazz.  Pages ruffled crisp, over the zydeco.

“Can you imagine,” asked Walt, from the back seat, “roads in Roman times?  If they had streetlights, they’d have to ignite them by hand, night after night.  Some poor old man, hooded and hunched over on a donkey, would ride from lamp to lamp, carrying an eternal torch on a crooked rod. 

“What stories would he tell?”

The road, designed as a military runway, was a crumbling strip of endless pavement, white on the edges, and Walt felt sick to think that they weren’t already at their destination, resting. 

Putting down his book, he said, “We have lights coming on, all on their own, all the way out here, where only we’re driving out to see them.  And, its like this all over the country.  From sea to shining sea.  Constant lights everywhere.  In every nook and cranny.

“All the overlooked marvels of the modern world.”

An airplane passed-by, high overhead, and was the only movement in the static blue.  Elle rolled up her magazine and shoved it away between her seat and the center console.  She stopped the radio on a surf-rock tune, where harmonizing guitars leapt over the persistent beat, tidal, singing-in from the shadows, oceanic with vibrato.

Lynn looked at her friend, keeping both hands straight and firm on the wheel, but her eyes far from the road.

“Will you find the campsite, Ellie?  Maybe something off the next exit or so?  We should leave ourselves some daylight to prepare for bed.”

She retracted slowly back to her original posture, and corrected her alignment on the lane with calm.  Walt leaned his head against the trembling window, while Elle withdrew her phone from her pocket.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to take over driving?” asked Walt, his temple rapping with every pebble underfoot.  “I could get us to Greenpoint by two or three, easy.  I slept from Dayton to Zanesville.”

“We packed the tents for a purpose,” said Elle, thumbing the glowing screen. 

“And, my love of camping outweighs your dislike for it,” said Lynn, finger raised, conducting the symphony of her point.

“I don’t dislike camping,” said Walt.  “But, we’re on a mission, and I want to get there so I don’t have to worry about getting there.”

“It’ll be a gorgeous night tonight,” said Lynn, “and we’re in no rush.”

Elle turned around to face Walt.  She tucked her elbow snug under the headrest to brace her position.  Walt’s body appeared limp to her, atrophied, half spread-out over the back seat.  He was a patient on a mattress in a gangrene ward.  His skin was pale and tinted blue, despite the sultry summer heat.  Looking at him made her stomach tighter with distress, and it was already heavy from the road.  To the knuckle, his finger marked a point in an impenetrable brick of anonymous pages, the lingering decline and fall. 

In the smoker’s court, behind his favorite venue, he’d told her how, “I see books I read weave into my reality. 

“They become the stories of my life.  When I’ve got a book, a real book, I have to carry it around with me everywhere.  That way, when the pages make their way into my days, into my events, I’ll know how to survive them.” 

And, rarely, she thought, did the books he read deal with pleasant subjects or stem from admirable authors.  Gibbon suffered from a swollen scrotum and lived celibate, in the shadow of an unfulfilled love.  Better books exist for impressionable people to model themselves upon, she thought, especially when rooted words reach deep into the viscera and grow so, out into the physicality of one’s life.

“You’re all show,” she’d told him, “reading Maldoror at a concert.  Wearing turtlenecks.  Are you even a real person?  Are you losing your mind?”

She thought about when Walt had read Proust last year, and how by the time he’d reached The Captive, his hair had naturally begun to twirl. 

“I almost left you then,” her eyes reminded him.  “The way you took to complaining about every little irritation.  The way you locked yourself in your apartment for days.  The way you extracted an internal sadness from everyone who came to visit you, digging in with your eyes and mining out their naked condition.

“You’re nearing this point again,” her eyes said.  “Over these thousand pages.”  But, her voice worded it, sharply, “If we wanted to get there just to get there, we would have flown.”

On his couch, she held his hand.  He said, “Elle, do you think we should move in together?  I’ve been imagining us on that tree-lined street down at the bottom of the hill.”

She said, “I was thinking we should break up.  I don’t know where this is going, and I’ve grown so used to living alone.”

She turned back toward the dash, out of his painful world.  Still involved.

“We’re only twenty miles out of Du Bois,” she said.  “We’ve never had a chance to visit, and now’s the perfect time. 

“Bring my life pleasantly full-circle.”

The rumble strips rode up onto the lanes, sending Lynn abrasive signals to slow her speed.

“It looks like major construction up ahead,” she said, tapping her GPS.  “It says that if we keep going, we could be sitting for more than an hour.  Are you sure we should risk the day?”

Walt counted the skipping stones, tossed up from the tires.  They rattled around the in under-carriage and nicked across the side window, skimming before his nose.  Pieces, he thought.  Roads that crumble and crack with age and worry.  Now that nowhere is safe to be.  This was once a way to escape the cities.  A way to disperse the population.  To de-centralize it.  Cast a web of roads on the periphery. This is where the early bombs could not reach.  Now we know that distance doesn’t matter, that it would be worse to survive.  The roads mainline us back to where we came.  They’ll take us to those targets.  Now that nowhere is safe to be.

“I see one more exit before Du Bois,” said Lynn.  “There’s a campground symbol off the State Route.  We know for sure we’ll find somewhere here.”

Elle didn’t respond, but she shut off her phone and tucked it away. 

Walt ran his thumb over the flip-book pages, hanging on the silky web of roads.

A line of cars became visible around a bend in the distance, all standing still on the highway, mirages rising off, bending apart the sizzling rooftop arches into splashing shapeless shapes, untouchable changes to the real, boiled alterations to the eye’s receptive light. 

“Where did they all come from?” asked Lynn, leaning forward over the wheel.

“We’re close enough to Du Bois,” said Elle, flipping her hand.  “I think this counts.  Let’s get off here.”

“It’s all the same in the country,” Walt consoled.  “If we want to call these houses over here ‘Du Bois,’ I don’t see the difference.  Think of it as ‘Greater Du Bois,’ and not whatever the hell this place is.  Alaska.”

As they came to the exit, bearing the name of no town,  Lynn guided them smoothly around the off-ramp, and they entered the old American grid of roads.  The only structure at the corner was an abandoned gas station, and Lynn followed the campground signs away from it, northward into the trees. 

She chugged down the way, farther into a territory distanced from civilization, a civilization suggested by the, until recently, vacant, half-kept Interstate behind.  A steel sign with torn edges informed them that they were entering a region called ‘The Pennsylvania Wilds.’

Lynn smiled.

“When I was young,” she said, “my father and I took a kayak down the Ohio River, camping in people’s backyards along the shore.  We stopped when we got to Cairo, where the river meets the Mississippi, and I wanted to carry on, but if we didn’t stop with the Mississippi, we wouldn’t stop with the sea, and we would have never returned to the land.

“And, the land is what we set out to see.”

Continuing through a twisted path of shadowed forest, she reached a straightaway and allowed her car to bolt.  The stretch led them bursting into a meadow, sunlit and alive with calming evening rays.  Fields of waving wheat surrounded them, rimmed by rolling hills that toppled upward in the distance, where the flatland gave-in to the stacking soil.  Farmhouses off long gravel driveways rested quiet, far from the road.  Dairy cows meandered under the shade of the sparse apple trees, tinted orange in the declining day.

The campground’s sign, the largest sign they’d seen here, was hand-painted, and instructed them to turn right down what looked like private property, a hidden estate, rustic, and built with old money.  Lynn followed the turn.  Tornadic wafts of dust caught the sun and refused to release it, golden through thin branches of maple.  Highland cattle shook flies from their shaggy orange hair, looking like strange, enormous, prehistoric men, punk rock drummers with yarned strands concealing their eyes.  Pointed horns protruded from their straightened mud-caked mops, and they bobbed them against the bark in boredom.

Focused on the quality of the evening’s light and on the novelty of the strange grazers, Walt heard the pop of gravel before he saw the source.  Not far ahead down the road, a grey hearse charged toward them, challenging them with its wide frame sweeping up the narrow strip.  With a consistent, too-high speed, it submitted Lynn to a high-schooler’s gauntlet, a game of head-on chicken, a joust, and keeping the tires on the path as much as she could, Lynn kept-up her speed and retained her integrity without risking a scratch on her father’s sedan.  The opponent went into the tall grass, mowing deep into the drainage ditch before rearing back up.  And, as they passed, Walt saw how the hearse was piloted by an elderly man.  The man’s long arms drooped like loose spaghetti off the wheel, and his sad face was held by a frog neck, displaying confetti freckles and rivulet veins, visible even through the tint of his darkened window glass.  The woman, sitting in shotgun, navigated by screaming at the man and smacking him back onto the road with her purse.  She wore a large sunhat, and she made eye-contact with Walt as they passed, spitting out some kind of curse that he couldn’t hear, but felt crack deep and black like molasses in his soul.

“Asshole,” said Lynn. 

“Everyday,” she raved.  “Always, always.  People continue when they know they’re in the wrong.  They continue.”

At the end of the strip, they rounded a mulberry tree, blooming beside the hills.  Looking back toward the main road, over a green lake of vegetation, Walt’s eyes skipped along the jumping lines of soy.  So many rows, he thought.  So many fields.  So many crops, organized and growing.  The long land.

“Why didn’t we just drive over it all?” he asked, deciding after speaking, that they already had.

The road dug into the hills and wound upward over the muscular terrain.  The trio lost sight of the farms and they re-entered the forest.  Elle rolled down her window to feel the fresh rush of the wind, the propeller whoosh of a passing picket fence.  She listened to the perpetual road-song, silenced only when they crossed a silver brook.  Then, she heard the muted words of the creaking covered bridge, with smooth wood beneath revolving round rubber, humming.  The summer felt fresh and fleeting to her, and she closed her eyes to revel in the experience, retaining the moment, to keep it forever and to surpass it, to press herself entirely into the short-lived, day-bright evenings of summer.  To hold the summer in her hands.

With her eyes closed, she rode the difference between the shade and the sun on her face, and she could smell the green leaves of the trees, and she could sense their teardrop shapes overhead.  Then, Elle felt a transformation, that the car had come out into the open again and that the road had spread out into a wide lot, like they were in a boat with a purple sail riding on the chopping sea.  No, this was nothing like the sea.  They’d come to somewhere diseased, where the unshaded sun was not as warm as it’d been before.

The dust underneath turned to a loud crumble of gravel again, and the pure quality of the light, casting colors and calm over her eyelids, neutralized and paled.  She surrendered to an unwanted reality and opened her eyes.  Ahead, in rows like the soybeans, were RV trailers plugged into ports.  Middle-aged men walked from arbitrary point to arbitrary point, like swamp-dwelling birds, but Elle didn’t see any women wandering around, not on first glance. 

“We’ve uncovered a hidden city of mustaches,” she said.

Lynn pulled up under another hand-painted sign, this one reading the name of the campground, and she stopped the tired vehicle. 

Walt noted the sign’s poor and terrifying depiction of a famous cartoon bear, and he said, “This place is dismal.”

“I’ve seen a million places like this,” said Lynn.  “They’ll have a tent camping spot somewhere in the trees, but up-front, they keep all the luxury campers, concession stands, swing-sets, etcetera, etcetera.”

“Is this luxury?” asked Elle.  “The pond looks like an open sewer.”

“Some of these RVs have bedrooms bigger than your own,” nodded Lynn.  “A lot of money is sitting in this field.”

“A lot of wasted money, if you ask me,” said Walt. 

Lynn tisked. 

“You don’t know the country.”

“No,” he said,  “but, how did this become the country?  It’s giving me good reasons not to know it.”

Again, their attention was taken by the pop of gravel, from treaded tires turning, and Walt wondered now if gravel existed as a way to keep cars from sneaking up on you, or stealing away at night, like creaky floorboards in ancient Japanese palaces, meant to alert bodyguards of silent assassins stalking.

A golf cart wobbled toward them.  Strapped to the top was a large searchlight, as if the driver had lifted it from a film-set or helicopter.  The driver was wearing a weathered race-car jacket, signaling with primary colors his favorite driver from the late nineties.  Beside him sat an elderly woman who might have been Queen Elizabeth, without pearls or jewels.  She smiled with big white teeth, and as the golf cart neared, Walt noted the intensity of her red lipstick.

Lynn rolled down her window.  The golf cart pulled up and stopped beside them, but neither the driver nor his passenger left their seats. 

“Welcome,” the driver said, leaning low to look deep inside the car.  His eyes scraped away at every surface, like a knife hollowing out a gourd. 

“You folks looking for a place to stay tonight?”

“Yes,” said Lynn.  “Is there an office?”

Looking around, Walt saw what could have been a shower-room or a bathroom, but nothing that resembled an office.  Atop a stand like a gallows, a young man filled a bucket with a black hose.  The sign above him read ‘Non-Potable Water.’

“I’m the owner,” said the driver.  “Name’s Gary.  This is Momma.  We have a house just over there a bit, back toward where you came from.   If we had an office, that’d be it, but I’d prefer if you didn’t go over there.  Private property.  We’d have to sic the dogs on you.”

He snickered, as if that were a joke.

“If you want a spot for the night, I’ll show you one in a second.  I suppose you’re thinking of tent camping?”

“Yes!” said Lynn, with cheer.

“I guessed so.  You don’t have an RV.  Doubt you’d come all the way out here to sleep in your car.

“I can take you back to a nice place in the woods if you’d like.  Not any other tent campers tonight.  Usually, we only get RVs, and then I get so many regulars that it’s always a surprise when someone new rolls along. 

“Let me drive Momma back to the house, and then I’ll come back and show you where to pitch.”

He held up his hand, a sign to hold the trio in place, and then he went back to the wheel, to drive off again.

“How much will it be for the night?” asked Lynn.  And Gary looked at Momma a moment, assessing.

“I’d say fifteen dollars,” he said, turning.  “Wait here.  I’ll be back.”

 

Walt couldn’t see the house, but it mustn’t have been far.  Only three surf-rock tunes, bleaching-out over the waves in two minute sessions, came and left, like three fully lived lifetimes, before Gary’s return.  The volume was set so close to the bottom, so close to silent now, Walt wondered if he were hallucinating the sound.  The three of them didn’t speak in that time.  They waited as if the time between Gary’s departure and return was not their time, but simply a necessary period to pass through, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, graced with a soundtrack of songs long forgotten by ninety-nine percent of the population, or more, forgotten by the trio even, before the songs were through.  The seconds of waiting were forgotten, never wanted in the first place, time spent sitting in a location, somewhere over the long land, under the darkening sky, waiting to be placed in another point on the leafy landscape, more places to drive over and arrive to.

Gary slowed, but didn’t stop as he passed. 

“Follow me,” he called, and Lynn put the car in drive and followed him mid-way past the algae pond and past the thousand docked RVs. 

Gary signaled a left turn by waving his cholesterol-crusted arm, crablike, over the five-planked bridge.  He lifted slightly off his seat, riding over the larger bumps.  As the elevation increased, they returned to the dusty roads, cutting off the grueling racket of the gravel lot.  Gary reached above his head and switched on the searchlight strapped to the roof of his golf cart, shining an intense round circle into the trees.

Her phone withdrawn, Elle began recording a video of their situation.  Walt became overly conscious of the sound of his voice as he gave his natural commentary, aware that what he said could be preserved for time immemorial. 

“This is how horror movies begin, Lynn.”

They passed several intersections with other nondescript dirt roads, and as they followed Gary around several turns in random directions, Lynn pointed out that their car was now floating in an empty nothing on her GPS screen.  Disparate paths encircled them, ending in various finger-nubbed points, reverting as the computer tried to locate itself.  Walt held his hand to his forehead and scrambled his hanging hair.

“Will we even know how to get out of here in the morning?”

“Hush,” said Lynn.

Visibility diminished the deeper they passed under the trees, but it was obvious that another hour of usable sun remained.

“He’s showing off with that searchlight,” said Elle.  “And taking us around in loops.”

“If you call that showing off,” said Walt.

“These roads could go anywhere, Ellie,” said Lynn.  “But, we don’t seem to be repeating any paths.”

A quick flash caught her peripheral, and expecting a deer, she footed the brake.  Instead, a little boy stepped out half-way onto the road.  He was naked and holding a fishing pole.  A small bluegill flopped around on the line, dangling in the air, and the boy held the line high with his right hand, watching the car with rapt attention.  Once they’d passed, the boy began to chase them, and his bare feet accepted thistles and thorns without care.

Elle turned her camera on the boy, and Walt mumbled out a wordless question.  He gathered his thoughts and said, “Where do you think he came from.”

Lynn drove on, eyes fixed on Gary’s tailgate, emitting little puffs of dry smoke from beneath.  More children ran from out from the bushes, and one group of girls screamed in a way that whalers might describe Cannibal songs, from back when the world was wilder, lacking cultural sensitivity. 

The few who wore clothes wore torn rags, dark with mud and filth, as though dragged along the ground.  One boy wore overalls, but he may have been older, as he was a head taller and had more teeth than the rest.  Their hair, if cut, seemed more ripped shorter than chopped, and frizzed where sweat and humidity hadn’t matted it down.  They were messy, thought Elle, in the way that every child wishes to be, blissfully ignorant of anything in the world that may be better than where they were and what they were doing now.

Five children flanked Gary’s golf cart from behind, and he made clicking animal noises which the children enthusiastically repeated.  They kicked up rocks with their shoeless feet, and ran right alongside Lynn’s car, not afraid of falling under.  A bruise-cheeked boy with a large red birthmark over his eye smacked the side door with a knotty stick, thick enough to use as a handrail in a stairwell.  The group of children trailing behind picked up stones and lobbed them through the air, raining them on the windshield like a storm of arrows.

Lynn break-checked them and two or three children collided with the bumper before she took off again.  She stuck her head out the window and flung her arm, shooing them away.  She swatted a cluster of pebbles tossed at her face like shot and threatened to beat the children’s asses.  She heard Gary laughing from the gut, chugging along on his toy before her.  The children did not attack him.  In fact, one was holding his hand, being led along the way.

 

The town could not be seen through the forest until the moment they rode in.  The canopy was higher here, but there were just as many trees as anywhere else.  One of the houses was constructed from sheet-metal and branches, but most of the others were legitimate.  Some were built by hand, log cabins and stone huts.  Others were assembled by combining the hauled portions of condemned homes, and were like Frankenstein mansions, pieced together.  The houses formed a horseshoe around a central fire-ring, and despite the enclosed arrangement, the settlement seemed lively, as people wandered about everywhere.  Two men greeted the intruders as they passed, leaning against a stripped white birch, drinking from a bottle of whisky.  A couple resting in rockers turned to see the commotion from their sizable porch, wrapped around their home.

Smoke wafted from both active and extinguished fires, and a group of knatty women stood beside four men holding instruments typical to the scene- a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo, and a fiddle.  They stopped their song to watch the trio pass.  Everybody stopped what they were doing and watched Gary lead the luxury though. 

The children disbanded as suddenly as they’d appeared.  The pied piper would lead them no further.  And, a tension eased once Lynn was clear of the houses.  The villagers’ shoulders loosened.  They turned their backs and resumed their conversations.  A shirtless woodchopper split a log.  Walt heard the banjo’s metallic sprint continue flowing in the distance, contrasting greatly with the heady trip echoing from the radio, draining into static.  The fire-pit circle laughed at an unknown joke, most likely about them, and the children watched the car disappear from the invisible, impassable border of their town.

After a few minutes uphill, Walt pointed out a baby spruce with two branches, like bare legs.  “If that’s Green Boots, we’re in the death-zone.  I don’t need a corpse-marker to know that.”

“Who were those people?” asked Elle, looking up and up.  “Where is he taking us?”

 

The trail twisted past other intersecting roads, and then they turned left out of the woods, into the vibrant green.  The field was well-manicured and high up on the hill.  The road disappeared under the grass, became swallowed up by nature, and Gary carried on without hesitation, as though the road continued straight ahead without ever dropping out.  Lynn followed suit, and the car rose higher up onto the flat plateau where islands of dense trees were left to grow in pleasing gardens.  The wind whipped the grass around like a wave, and the spherical canopies of the trees danced and swayed like the hips of Spanish dancers.  A patch of wild wheat kept time with rhythmic arrowhead points, and white parashoots of dandelion swept through the air around them like snow. 

From the top of the slope, they were above the general tree-line, so they could see the vast land in all directions, patched with forests and farms.  The Interstate looked like a model from here, another of humanity’s gleaming toys, and after they drove forward a few more yards, it disappeared from sight under a lower parabola of elm-laced land. 

In the evening sunlight, almost unreal, unnatural in color, these wilds were an endless Eden.  Tendons rose in place, unlocked from their only home.  By the pressure on his finger, Walt noticed Elle was holding his hand, as they were both at their windows, looking out at the view, sharing unspoken joy.

“This is the jackpot,” said Elle, finally.

Gary flicked off his searchlight, now that they were out of the well-lit trees, and he led them to the far edge of the field.  Here, there was a picnic table and a few patches of gravel, presumably for parking, and although the land lipped high enough upward to see completely over the trees, the spot was close enough to the woods below, that a short walk down a gradual slope would allow them to set up their tents under a forest canopy. 

Lynn parked her car crossways on the zenith, and they admired briefly the beauty of the world.

“Sorry to take you the long way,” said Gary, dismounting. 

“It’s a little rough for some outsiders going through the forest and then through that town, but this is the best place in the county to camp, if you ask me.  Definitely worth the trek.” 

On his feet, Gary was an awkward creature, a forest animal.  He lumbered as he walked, almost wobbled.  But, he was average in that he was tall and thick, like most men back at the RV camp.  His arms and legs were evenly spaced when he stood still, and he concentrated on his stance, and Lynn wondered if he’d been injured once, by the way he moved.

The death of the car’s engine came as a shock to Walt, who hadn’t felt stillness for several hours now.  Like a woken sleepwalker, he had to regain his sealegs, and shake out the tingles.  He had to relearn how to move his arms again, in order to open the door.

When he stepped out, Gary stiffened and fell back on his heels, a cat on a fence.

“There’s three of you?” he asked.

Half out of the car, Walt said, “Yes.”

Gary normalized after a moment, and Walt asked, “Do you think there’s room out here for me?”

“It’s no problem,” said Gary.  “I didn’t see you when I looked into the car earlier.  Just a shock is all, like when you reach for water and get a sip of milk instead.

“I wouldn’t expect to see a man in the backseat either.”

 “Why not?” Walt recoiled.  “I was sleeping, in case we decided to drive tonight, straight through.”

He closed the door and stood taller.  Before this man, Walt felt as though his very presence was an offense, and that in order to not be attacked on every side at every chance, he’d have to make this guy know that he wouldn’t take his shit.

“Driving through,” repeated Gary, grinding his teeth.  His mouth missed its sprig of long grass.  “Where you folks headed?”

“Brooklyn,” said Elle, closing her door gently now.

Lynn didn’t address Gary, but once free from the car, turned to soak up the vista in the open air.  She stretched her arms high into the stream, allowing the wind to ripple her loose sleeves.  Birds darted like brown boomerangs, not so high above them.  Butterfly height here.

“The big city,” said Gary.  “Never been there.  Pittsburgh once.  Punxsutawney more often than not.”

“Walt has a job interview,” said Elle, introducing him with her hands, “so we’re driving out to see if he can find some work.  Lynn has some family in the city, so we’re going to stay with them for the week as well.”

Gary smiled cordially.

“That’s nice,” he said.  “You’ll make a nice trip out of it. 

“You folks need a wake up call?”

“No, that’s alright,” said Walt.  “We’re planning on leaving around six in the morning.  We don’t want to trouble you.”

“Trouble me?” he scoffed.  “Shit son, I’m up and out before five every day.

“You kids need some firewood?”

“I don’t know if we’ll need it,” said Walt.  “We’ll set up the tents, probably fall asleep in about an hour, and then head on out when we wake.”

“Walt, what would camping be without a fire?” scolded Lynn.  “Mister, can we buy some firewood from you?”

Every time a woman spoke, Gary’s smile enhanced.

“You don’t need to pay for it, darlin’.  And you’re right.  You can’t camp without wood.  I’ll go get you some.  Be back in a jiff.  In the meantime, enjoy the daylight.  We’re losing it quick.”

Instead of returning to his golf cart, he walked out into the field.  Pointing with his entire arm and backpedaling, he said, “My house is just down there, at the bottom of the hill.  This field is my backyard.  Long backyard, but I do the work to keep it short because I like the grass that way.  I led you around the long trail so we wouldn’t get tire tracks all over the place.  I don’t mind if we leave tracks back here, but in the morning, I’d appreciate it if you try to drive back the way we came up.”

He strolled towards his vehicle and as he came closer, he said, “I won’t be long coming back.  And if you happen to need anything in the middle of the night, or if there’s an emergency, you know where you can go to find me.  Just down the hill. 

“I’ll tie up the dogs when I’m down there, too.  Wouldn’t want them wandering up here to find you.  God knows, there’re already enough critters to deal with in these parts.”

Lynn approached Gary with her wallet in hand.

“Before you go, let me pay you for the site.”

Gary tried to start the cart before she got to him, but she was faster than his wrist.

“Fifteen dollars, you said?”

He looked at her with a confused and scrambled face, embarrassed or ashamed to accept her money.  Afraid of women’s money. 

He stuttered.

“Did I say fifteen dollars?” he asked.

He took the bills.

“You should be settled here then,” he sweated, pretending to count the two bills.

Lynn smiled at him, to comfort his way through the transaction.  She patted his arm like a coach would to a little league player and then he stuffed the bills, crumpled, into the front pocket of his jeans.

Gary wheeled quickly down the steep grade of the hill, and Walt watched him roll on at a speed that most might feel uncomfortable maintaining.  A patch of panicgrass sectioned off the land, dividing the tent-grounds from Gary’s house, but even after walking around the concealing bit of breezy prairie, Walt couldn’t see the structure.  He found himself mythologizing it, assuming an old Victorian, something charming and out of Days of Heaven, something a man like Gary might not appreciate.

“Do we feel comfortable camping in somebody’s backyard?” he asked, but the others were far away and couldn’t hear him, and Lynn, Lynn had camped-out in many backyards, the backyards of strangers, all up and down the coast of the mystic Ohio.

 

            “It’s such a beautiful place, Mom.  The hills are almost like Scotland.  I can see everything from up here.

“Of course they aren’t like the Rockies.  Still tall, though.  Everything’s below us in all directions out.  Its like we’re at the highest point in the world.”

            Walt, with his thumbs in his pockets, left Elle to pace about with her ear against the phone.  A low fog hovered above the ground now, and he silently agreed with her as he passed, that he felt a reminiscent tinge of the Scottish highland character here, something old and ghostly, covered in peat, ascending from the moors.

Lynn leaned against her car, staring outward, analyzing the rising Allegheny moon.

            “You hear the crickets?” she asked Walt while he came by, leaning beside her.  “It’ll be dark soon.  The night should fall quickly now.  Let’s get our tents up.” 

            “You check for dents and scratches yet?” he asked, running his finger over the hood.

            “Here’s a ding,” she said, glossing the car’s body.  “Here’s another.”  

She popped the trunk with her fob.

“My dad might be pissed, but Ellie has video evidence, which will help in my case.”

“You don’t seem too, too concerned,” Walt observed.

            Lynn removed Elle’s tent from the trunk and handed it to him.

“Near Knoxville,” said Lynn, “I once saw hundreds of drifters living under a single bridge, like a secret city of the rural homeless.  Still, I was surprised when we drove through that town in the woods just now.  I had no idea that people lived like that.”

She stuck her head deep into the trunk and reached toward the back.

“Not that I’m surprised.  I just wasn’t expecting to see that today, not here.  Not like that.  Established.”

She removed a picnic basket and set it aside, focusing on the arrangement of the items while she spoke. 

“Their world must be so separate from ours, so self-sustained, so completely off the grid.”

            “What I wonder,” asked Walt, “is who hauled their houses here?  Whose cars keep all those trails in tact?  I wonder how off the grid these people really are.” 

“You saw how easily Gary led us through,” said Lynn.  “They were familiar with him.  They let us pass because he was with us.

            “Do you think they’ll try to rob us in the night?” she turned.  “Or do you think they respect Gary, and that his word’ll protect us?”

            Walt choked on a laugh, his propped elbow sliding against the car, collecting its gray grime in a streak on his skin. 

            “I’d never trust a man like that to protect anyone.  Not even himself.  There’s something brutal about him.  I can’t put my finger on it.  It’s a feeling that I have around men like him.”

            “He doesn’t respect you.  You don’t know the country, Walt.  Your incompetency sweats off you here.”

            “This is different than the country,” he said.

She took her bag and closed the trunk, and then they walked together down the hill toward the thin edge of the forest, carrying the contained tents, slung over their shoulders like golf clubs.  Walt looked up at the setting sun, where the rays streaked like magnificent ribbons through the altocumulus.

            “I’m not going to get this job,” he said. 

            Lynn squinted against the bright nothing, and replied, “Not with that attitude.”  Her response was automatic and meant to irritate, and she succeeded.

“From the bottom of my heart, I think this whole trip is a waste of time,” said Walt.  “I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m cursed.”

“You’re not cursed,” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said, watching his treading feet flail.  “Things have been getting worse and worse for me.  Algorithmically, even.  I have this persistent feeling of doom, like I’m carrying a bat-winged shadow on my back, preventing me from achieving success. 

 “Getting this interview was a lucky surprise, but as soon as I heard about it, I knew I wouldn’t get the job.  The universe is showing me a glimpse of the fruit bowl, but it’s going to drag that fruit away, just out of reach, when I go to take a banana.  And, not for the first time, either.  I wonder if I’m being punished for something bad I did, but I don’t understand what that is, except perhaps, for a flaw in my character, in my personality, something intrinsic that I can’t help being.  I was once way up, and now, I’m so down low, that being raised as I was, I naturally default to believing that I’m being disciplined by fate or by God or karma.”

“Fate doesn’t exist,” she said.  “And, neither does karma.  The only thing punishing you is your bad perspective.  I’m not even the one you’re trying to convince, and I know I wouldn’t give you the job.  You’re a fatalist from the onset, so why would I want you on my team? 

“Are you fishing for pity?  Did your mother only show you affection when you were sick?”

He grunted, resisting the urge to throw her down the hill.

 

“If you have no hope, then why did we go all this way?” she asked.  “It’s fine for me, I get to see my aunt, but why are you wasting what little money you have?”

“I have to try to get the job,” he said, “if not just for the look of it.

“You make me out to be a joke, but I’m not a joke.  I’m struggling for essential resources.  And I care what Elle thinks about me.  Your counsel with her isn’t helping my case.  It’s difficult to convince others to love you when you have no power.  They fall off of you, when they were attached so tightly before.  Even when you’re not around, whispering in her ear, I look at her and I see the rope between us rotting.  She liked me fine when I was active, when I was in school, but now I’m buried under debt and I’m unemployed.  It embarrasses her to introduce me to people.  It embarrasses her to think about who I am and why she’s with me.  So, what use am I to her if I don’t try for this job?  What use am I to myself?  I’m forced to interview through circumstance, for a role I won’t receive, because they’re the only place in thousands who have even opened their doors to meet me.”

He adjusted the strap over his shoulder and increased his pace to match with Lynn’s until they reached the shaded bottom of the hill.  Then, he threw his tent on the ground.

“I think you just wanted a nice vacation,” she said, “and this was an excuse to take one.  I see it as your tendency to over-reach, in action.  Most people would take to whatever job they could find, and stick with it, but you have your expectations set too high.”

“I’ve taken whatever jobs I can find,” he said, “and they aren’t good enough.  You become more entrapped.  The money doesn’t even out.  People come to associate you as the factory-worker, when in your head, that doesn’t represent who you are at all, and this dysphoria smolders your potential while you watch the years go by.

“I never thought the economy could kill, but I can feel it trying, pushing at my chest, squeezing out all the life inside.  I’m not the exception that I thought I’d be when I was young.  There are rules we’re trapped within, containing our lives, and they aren’t working in my favor.  I’ve never asked so many people if I could work for them.  I’ve never asked so many people for help.  And, I’ve never endured so much silence and rejection in return.  I’m not the only one I hear singing this song.  It’s a song for our generation.  We wanted more.  We were raised content, and who would ever want to feel too-content for long?  Even when you have everything you need, too much contentment leads to stagnation, and stagnation on to death.  I strove for an unobtainable future because I’d been brought up to chase it.  And, this over-reaching ruined me.  You’re right, I’m an over-reacher, and because of it, I’ve been thrown into a debt I can’t repay, like Icarus toward the sun, and it’s made me feel shamed and laughed at for attempting to realize my plans in the first place.

“But, it didn’t feel like over-reaching at the time.  It felt like going to school.  Why is the price-tag for an education a ruined lifetime?”

“Yes, our country has a debt crisis,” Lynn said, with annoyance.  “But that’s the market, and you chose to take on that debt.  At least you have that degree you aren’t using.  And, at least you aren’t living in the woods like those people over there, Walt.  You’ve been better off than they’ve been for their entire lives, even in the situation you’re in now.  Don’t pretend like you aren’t rich enough.”

“Driving here,” he said, jaw askew, “we saw so many sprawling roads and houses, all wasted and emptied, abandoned.  People have it worse than I do, sure.  Who would help anyone, when so much energy has to be spent looking out for yourself and your own? 

“The nation’s attitude is ruthless against itself.  Our modern spirit encourages despair instead of strength.  So many people I know feel like they don’t belong here anymore.  They’re shown how they aren’t wanted.  They can’t afford to live.  Some never could.  The masses elected Nero because they wanted to be like him.  A wealthy man to make everybody wealthy.  A man who gets away with anything he wants, scandals that would bury other men, all because what he says goes.  Another lie, while all the wealth we’re missing seems to show up in his hands. 

“We’re surrounded by active shooters that we’ve bred, hate rallies, oil pipelines.  People screaming over fences about who’s fault it is that the world’s dropping into disarray.

“It’s sundown in America, and after the night, after we fall into our dreamless sleep, I can only hope we’ll wake again, un-murdered by the hoard who left our world raving in the mess it’s in.  This was a country where once all were welcomed, by intruders.  Now, even those born into the system, on the soil, are unwelcome.  We’re all intruders, and nobody is trusted.”

            His eyes looked dusted to her, like charcoal and clay.  

“I’ve lost all sense of hope and all expectation for the future.  I can’t take for granted that the dawn will come again, not in times like these.”

Under the dark shadow of the canopy, Lynn found a patch of flat land near the bank of a flowing creek and removed her shoes to feel the ground with her bare toes.  Looking up the hill,  Walt saw the clearing and the corner of their car, where Elle was looking past them and above them, still on the phone.  She was front-lit by the summer sun, and standing within the beams, shown as fully and as clearly as the eye can arrange, as whole as a person can be seen.  And, Walt didn’t recognize her. 

Only two years ago, he’d taken her picture in a field of yellow wildflowers, her smile like a Renaissance painting, and as he’d captured the light and stilled the rectangular moment, he’d thought about how they belonged to the same body and mind, and how they would remain so until the end. 

But, the end had already come for them, and she was not same to him, and her body held a different type of warmth than it had before.

She won’t stay with me for long, he thought.  If I don’t get this job, she’ll leave me.  She’s already tried before.  And, if I do get the job, I won’t earn enough.  It won’t solve anything for us.  She might stick around for a few years, but we’d never recover from the damages incurred.  Our life together will never be how it used to be.  We are dead.

            “A little rocky for my taste,” said Lynn, surveying the grounds, “but it doesn’t matter to me.  The elevation is right.  Just stack an extra blanket or sleeping bag under you to buffer.”

            “I’m not worried about it,” said Walt, shaking his head.  “Its only for a few hours.  Can’t be worse than the back seat of that car, as long as it doesn’t get cold.”

            Lynn opened her bag and removed the spikes.  Then, she withdrew the floppy carcass of her tent and shook it out.           

“A few times,” she said, “I’ve slept on the ground without cover or a sleeping bag, just to see what it would be like to really rough it, without comfort or amenities.  I’ve slept on fallen trees, tilted off the ground, leaning against boulders.  Wake with the ants.

            “Sometimes you have to do things,” she said, kicking the spike down into the soil, “to prove to yourself that you don’t have limits.  That in a survival situation, you could sleep on the ground if you had to, riddled with tree roots, that you could sleep curled around a bough, high off the ground.  You never know what you’ll have to do to survive.

            “And sometimes, it’s best to know how to sleep through a storm, since you cannot stop the rain.”

 

            Lynn’s tent was up before Walt’s, and Elle came down to help him finish.  The two tents were about ten feet apart, and Lynn’s was bigger and looked professional, photogenic, like an advertisement.  Walt’s looked wrinkled, like it needed to be ironed, and the loops kept slipping out from the supporting poles, bringing the whole dome collapsing inward. 

            But, with Elle’s assistance, the tent was finally raised, and they walked together up the hill to retrieve some linens from the car.  On the way, they heard a forced, falsely-amiable voice, and once over the apex, they found Lynn, standing by the beaten golf cart with Gary.  He’d attached a little trailer to it and had filled the trailer with wood.

            “About time,” said Gary, arms akimbo.  “That must be a record.  Longest tent pitching in history.  I watched you from up here, struggling.”

            Gary’s smile publicized Walt’s ineptitude more than his throat, and Walt walked past, saying, “I don’t camp often, no.  And, this isn’t my tent.”

            “You need an instruction manual?” asked Gary, reaching into the mini-trailer and tossing out a few stumps and planks.  A small banged-up fire-ring had already been thrown onto the ground in a spot burned away, black and yellow, where the surrounding grass was dead.

            “I don’t suppose you know how to build a fire either,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll do it for you if you want.”

            “That’d be great,” said Lynn, “we could use the help.”

            “Do you have any lighter fluid?” asked Walt, searching around in Gary’s cart.

            “Lighter fluid?  Shit boy, you’d ruin the fire then.  It’s got to smell clean.”

            He broke a board of the yellow-red wood over his knee, and tossed the split pieces beside the rusted ring.

            Elle came from the car with a pile of blankets and asked Walt for assistance.  He took a portion and then they walked together down the hill toward the tent.

“He doesn’t seem to like you,” she said, once they were out of earshot.

            “Nobody seems to like me very much these days,” Walt replied.

            Elle dipped her face down, resting her nose in the soft blanket bunched-up in her arms.  She took in the fresh, chemical scent of the laundry detergent hiding in the fibers.

            “He’s everything you hate,” she said, returning.  “Country boy, race car jacket, insensitive, assumed ignorant.  But, so far, he’s already proven useful and polite.”

            “Polite to you,” said Walt.  “He expects there’s an off chance he’ll sweep you off your feet.”

            Elle didn’t argue.

            “You came rolling up here with two girls.  Aside from his mother, I doubt any woman’s ever let him be in a car with her for more than thirty seconds.

            “He doesn’t know who you are or where you’ve been.  You come from a different world than he did.  You’re unpredictable.  He doesn’t know how to read you, except as another bull in his way, a competition.  He’s threatened by you.”

            “I wish he’d leave us alone,” said Walt, glancing over his shoulder.  “I’m not a bull, and I don’t like trouble.

“I hope he goes back home as soon as the fire’s up.”

            “I think he’s going to try to stay awhile,” said Elle, looking back with Walt.  “You don’t need to be psychic to know what’s on his mind.  We’re not losing him tonight.”

            They organized their tent, made it as homey as possible, and when they went back up the hillside they saw that Gary already had a small fire of kindling and newspaper going.  The night, as Lynn had predicted, was falling fast, and the rest of the logs had been unloaded from the trailer and were strewn in unorganized stacks on the ground nearby.

            “Do you know what kind of wood this is?” asked Gary, once Walt and Elle were settled, standing beside the fire.  Nobody knew the answer, although the smell was familiar and pleasant.

            “Of course you wouldn’t know,” said Gary.  “It’s cedar wood. 

“The Indians around here used to burn it in ceremonies.  The sparks that rise can be read for symbols of the future.  The sparks are the voice of the ancients, the deceased, speaking to the living.”

            And, thick orange sparks were surging, like Chinese lanterns, high into the darkening night.

            “The wood burns too quickly to use for long, though.  That’s why I also brought some common maple.  I’ll add that on once the fire starts to go out, and then it should burn for quite a long time.”

            Elle crossed arms with Lynn, and Walt remained in place near Gary.  He admired the cedar’s reaction to the heat, and meditated on the Native American tradition which may or may not have been true.  While his mind was on the topic of mysticism, Walt decided to probe Gary with internal judgment, to extract what essence he could sense about the man’s character.  Without looking at him, without speaking, Walt imagined giving Gary waves of psychic pleasantry, blue lines that undulated from his brain into his new acquaintance’s.  Walt hoped that the mental flow would be accepted and he watched, from inside his head and out, as Gary closed off and turned away.  The man would do no business with Walt.  

While others sometimes accepted the flow and gave back, Gary seemed enraged about the prospect, like he understood what Walt was imagining, and there would be no peace between them.  Gary surrounded his skull with high defensive barriers, walls to sever trade.  If he had anything to share, it would be with the women, and even then, that kindness would not be a true kindness, but a deception, a lure to quick intimacy, a default set in Gary’s character, down at his basic core.

            Whether using this plane of intuition to test another’s character is reliable or fair is one argument, thought Walt, sure, but intuition drives real actions between others, perhaps more than vocal conversation in most events, as it’s close to impossible to convert someone who’s made up their mind about one side of an argument.  And the deep coldness, the deep unwelcoming that Walt felt inside of Gary now, showed him that there was nothing that he wished to extract from this man, and there was nothing that he could give to Gary that Gary wouldn’t waste or find unneeded and ridiculous.  Gary was closed off.  And, Walt felt this closure, and he backed away from this mocking, overly self-assured, dangerous first impression. 

            Gary departed with a grunt, and pulled a few folding chairs out from the golf cart.  He carried them over and placed them around the fire. 

            “How many of you were there?” he asked, zipping around with a pointer and pinky finger, counting.  “There aren’t four of you?”

            “It’s very obvious,” said Walt, “that there are three of us.”

            “Hmm,” said Gary.  “I could have sworn that there were four of you.  Three ladies and one gentleman.  I brought four chairs.”

            “Well, you’re very welcome to sit with us a bit and enjoy the fire,” invited Lynn.

            “That’s polite of you,” he said.  “I don’t want to crash your party, but if we have enough chairs out here, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be used.”

            “You can use my chair,” said Walt.  “I’m not going to stay up much later, especially if we’re still aiming to leave here at six tomorrow.”

            Gary situated the chairs so there was a gap where the smoke tended to billow.  Two chairs were on the northern side of the circle, and two were on the southern.  Gary was the first to sit down, and the others followed as a unit.  Elle took a seat next to Walt, and Lynn took the seat next to Gary on the other side, almost another continent away.

            “I think it will be a good night tonight,” said Gary, looking up to the heavens.  “It’s a shame you have to waste it by turning off and going to sleep so early.”

            “I’ve seen many beautiful nights,” said Walt.  “I have more important things on my mind right now than one beautiful night.  It can be sacrificed for the greater good.”

            “Nothing is more important than a beautiful night,” said Gary, and then nudging Lynn with his elbow, “except maybe a beautiful girl.”

            “If I get this job,” said Walt, “it’ll mean a lot of great things for us in the future.”

            “Well, if that’s the case,” said Gary, “I wish you luck.

            “Is your interview tomorrow?  You’re a far distance away if it is.”

            “In three days,” said Walt.

            “And you’re resting now?”

            Fireflies were glowing in the field, like stars bursting forward into existence and then simmering out, energy cut.  Walt saw that Elle was watching them in the mesmeric way that she often watched creatures of the hidden world, and he wondered what she was thinking about them.

“From another perspective of time, if the life of the stars appeared so fast and distant, like the fireflies, like if the night were the universe, and the flies were stars, how quickly lived would our small, human lives be lived?”

            “We used to call them Lightning Bugs,” said Elle.  “In the south. 

            “I went to the Smokies with my family a few years ago.  Every summer, the fireflies gather there and synchronize their lights.  You stand in the middle of the forest, and in the dark, the lights come on all at once, far away from you.  They’ll go out, and immediately, more take over, closer.  Those live, alight, go out, and the next wave comes, closer, and then closer.  Finally, you’re surrounded on all sides by a thousand glowing lights, and they hover and bob like magical spells around you.  They go out all at once, and then the woods behind you glow, and it keeps going down the line, all the way to the end.  And, once the lights go out at the end of the forest, they come on again in the front, and they sweep closer and closer to you like before, lights off and on, surrounding you, and leaving, holding you and letting go.  I really can’t comprehend it.  From above, it must look like a brainwave on a monitor.  All the fireflies know, instinctually, when to ignite.

“They contain more within them than we can even know.”

She looked into the fire, and imagined faces that, as a child, she claimed she could see in the flames.

“The woman who found them kept the season a secret for over fifty years.  Once she grew old, and realized that she may not live much longer, she told a friend for the first time, one of the strangest things in nature that she’d ever seen.  I like to imagine her, walking out into the forest every year alone, surrounded by the secret of the fireflies, just her, surrounded by their pulsing light.”

Gary held up his hand, an orator.

            “The strangest thing I’ve seen in nature,” he said, “are people. 

“You think fireflies are smart?  Well, they’ve got nothing on people.”

            “Most people would probably agree that humans are smarter than fireflies, yes,” said Walt.  “But, I think that’s missing her point.”

            “You folks are going to the city tomorrow,” said Gary.  “You’d call that nature, right?  Sure, some people might say the city is everything that nature isn’t, and when they leave the city, they’re leaving to get back into nature.  But, I say, why keep them separate, town and country?

“You would call a termite mound a part of nature, but the termites might call it their city.  We’re animals too.  Using bits of the ground to put up walls and houses and roads.  Beaver dams.”

            The moon was rising higher, and the sky was turning a strange torn auburn, dynamic across the velvet horizon.

            Gary slapped his leg.

            “The fire always makes people talk the same sort of talk, don’t you think?  It opens up channels in the mind. 

“You kids want a drink?  Might make the talk a little better.  I brought some sangria up with me.”

            “You brought sangria?” asked Lynn. 

            On the back of the golf cart was strapped a small container, like an unplugged ice box.  Opening it, Gary rooted around to the bottom of various, spider covered objects, until he came to a magnum-sized bottle of a well-known and often avoided three dollar wine.  With the other hand, he removed an unopened bottle of vodka, set it down, and removed a party-size package of clear plastic cups.  He returned to the fire, bearing all of these items, and distributed cups to Elle and then to Walt.  He untwisted the cap from the bottle of wine and poured for both of them, and then reached for the vodka, which he’d set on the ground.

            “It’s fine,” said Walt.  “I’ll just take the wine.”

            “You’ll just take the wine?” he asked.  “Well, that won’t get you anywhere.”

            “Same for me,” said Elle.

            He looked at the two like ungrateful dinner-party guests, and then he took his collection over to Lynn’s side. 

            “Well, I know that somebody over here will join me.”

            “Only a tad,” cringed Lynn.  “I probably don’t need as much as you do.”

            “You do want some of the real stuff?” he asked, holding up the vodka so the contents sloshed and made a jugging sound under the neck.

            “Well, it wouldn’t be sangria without it, now would it?” she asked. 

He gave her a large splash, a splash that most might deem a heavy-handed pour, diluting the deep, dyed color of the wine.

            Gary took a seat in his chair and once settled, he filled his glass to the brim, mostly with vodka.

            “You go on a lot of trips with your family?” he asked Elle.  “You seem like you have some camping know-how.”

            She smiled politely and nodded.

            “Yes, we used to go on quite a few trips, growing up.  The Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Jasper, the Willamette Valley.  I’ve not been on nearly as many trips as Lynn, though.  She grew up traveling the countryside.”

            Gary was draining his glass, so he didn’t stop Elle to change the subject to Lynn, as Walt felt, he wanted to do.

            “My parents used to meet nearby, here in Du Bois, when they were dating.  It was the half-way point between Long Island where my dad lived, and where my mom grew up in Kentucky.  Since we were traveling this way, and Lynn wanted to camp, I thought it would be nice to stay in Du Bois like my parents used to.  Kind of bring my life full circle, and see a bit of my roots.”

             Gary swallowed hard, and shook the shock of the drink away from him. 

            “This isn’t Du Bois,” he croaked.  “That’s still another twenty, thirty minutes away.”

            “We thought it would be close enough,” interrupted Lynn.  “There was traffic on the Interstate, and it was no use to go any farther just to sit still.”

            “You made a wise decision,” he saluted.  “You’ll see once you’re in Du Bois, it’s just like everywhere else up and down the road.  Franchises, parking lots, and malls.  At least you have a nice view of the country from up here.  In the morning, if it’s clear, I’ll lend you some binoculars and you can try see the edge of Du Bois.  You may have to stand on that rock over there, maybe prop one of these chairs up on the rock.”

            The view now, Walt noticed, was of darkness, and only darkness.  He listened to the hoot of owls, and wondered how he’d missed the color’s departure.

            “My parents like Du Bois,” said Elle.  “It holds a place in their hearts.  They talk about it like a dream.”

            “A dream,” huffed Gary, coughing up spittle.  “I guess different places mean different things to different people.  You’ll see it tomorrow, there’s nothing there.  Nothing exciting.  Well, it never excited me all that much, really.  It’s just another place to buy lumber and ammo.”

            He looked at Lynn too long and smiled with darkened teeth.

            “Don’t you all think it’s a little too quiet out here?  Maybe we could liven this party up?”

            “How so?”

            “The radio,” he said.  “You think we could turn on your car radio?”

            “I suppose so,” she said.  “What do you like to listen to?”

            “Right now,” he said, “Classic Rock.  But, in the day time, only Country.”

            She rose and went to the car.  She turned the key backward and twisted up the volume knob.  All that increased was the boiling sound of static.  She changed the channels, uncovering new styles of fuzz, some quiet and muted, and others aggressive, like hands tearing paper.  

Gary refilled his glass with more vodka.  Walt and Elle had both only pretended to take a sip, out of courtesy, and placed their cups on the ground.  Each eyed their wine, and each eyed each other.

            “You’d think that up here, we’d get channels as clear as day.  Try 88.9,” hummed Gary.

            “I passed it already,” said Lynn.  “I don’t think anything is clear.”

            “I have some songs on my phone,” offered Walt.  “We could plug that in.  No Classic Rock or Country, though.”

            “What’ve you got,” asked Gary.

            “Local bands from back home.  Lately, all I listen to are bands that my friends are in.”

            “Nothing else?” asked Gary. 

            “It’s the culture,” said Walt.  “Why would I listen to what big money wants me to hear, just so I can fill their wallets more, when I have a community all around me making music that I can relate to on a personal level?  I know the musicians, and we go through the same things.”

            “Plug it in,” said Gary.  “Let’s see how good your friends are.”

            “I don’t think you’re going to like it,” said Elle, but Walt brought his phone to Lynn, who plugged it into the car.

            “What would you say this music’s like?” asked Gary.  “Is it loud?”

            “I would call it art loud,” said Elle.

            The music blasted in over the speakers, colorful and energetic, and when Lynn and Walt sat down in their seats, they found that a new tension had grown.

“I hate being the DJ,” Walt admitted.  “Introducing new music to people always leaves me a little nerve-wracked.  Your choice of song reveals who you are as much as the melody reveals the songwriter.”

            “I can see why you like the music,” Gary nodded.  “But, it’s garbage. 

“It’s like zombies throwing paint onto a crowd.”

            Lynn defended calmly, “This band finds cohesion by exploring new paths to follow, like trailblazers.  They use more variation than the usual formula you might hear in the radio hits.  I’ve always liked this band.  But, maybe you’d have to see them live to get it.  Or maybe you’d have to know them like we do.”

            “You sound like a Dead-Head,” grunted Gary.  “You can’t defend bad music when it’s playing right beside me and I can hear it.  Can you turn it down? 

“You can leave it on, but turn it down.”

            Offended, Lynn stood and returned to the nearby car.

            “I didn’t think it was that loud.”

            Gary gargled down more of his Sangria, and chuckled at an unknown joke in his drink.  The music played on, quieter.  Lynn left it at a reasonable volume, so it was in the background, but not inaudible.  The driver’s door was open to allow the sound to pass through, and sitting by the fire, with the car radio supplying the soundtrack of the night, Walt smiled for the first time since they’d left that afternoon.  On a voyage out of town, what had calmed him most were reminders of home.

            Celebratory shouts were heard out in the wilderness.  Firecrackers, or gunshots.  Dogs barking.

            “Is that from the town that we passed earlier in the trees?” asked Lynn.

            “Perhaps they can hear the music,” said Gary.

            He read the concerned look on Lynn’s face.

            “Don’t worry,” he said.  “They’ll leave you three alone.  They usually leave campers alone, as long as no one wanders onto their turf at night.  I drove you through so they’d know not to come up here, to tell them that the field is occupied.  No, if I were you, I’d be more afraid of the bears.”

            He took another head-tilted drink, unable to sip.  He gasped and wiped his mouth, straining for air, red stains on his lips and teeth.

            “They sound like ghouls to me.”

            He gazed around at the group, a storyteller’s look about him.

            “You kids believe in spirits?”

            “It’s fun,” said Lynn, “to believe around a campfire.”

            “The spirits follow fire,” said Gary.  “They’re drawn to it from the other world.  We’ve always called them fireside wolves, the spirits, because they lurk around the ring and come out to live again through people’s speech.  You can’t help but tell your tales around a fire, can’t you?”

            Walt and Elle, with their heads down now, avoided eye contact with the other side of the smoke.  To get their attention, Gary spoke up louder and deeper than he’d spoken before throughout the night.

            “When you’ve lived as long as I have, with the days spent outdoors, you come to see things.  And, not just once.  I’ve seen things many times.  The dead do often revisit the living.”

            Unprovoked by his audience, he continued, “an old friend of mine, Randy Reiter, was killed in the Vietnam War.  We served there together, back when I was younger than you are now.  I survived, but Randy wasn’t lucky.  He didn’t come home. 

“At least, not his body.

            “A young girl went missing in these woods about ten years ago.  She’d come with her daddy in the RV lot, and the last anybody had seen her, she was playing near the edge of the wood.  We had search parties going out, dogs, police, everyone, right here gathered up in this field as home base.  Sheriff Jackson came to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said ‘Gary, nobody knows these woods as well as you.  Will you lead this search-party?’  And, I was a little shy, and I said ‘Okay, Sheriff, you’re right about one thing there.  Nobody knows these woods as well as me.  I’ll find this little girl.’  So, there was pressure on me, a great pressure.  This poor little girl was lost out here, maybe injured.  Her mother was in tears, crying for the whole day at the RV lot. 

            “But, you know, we went out there, and I had all these guys following me, fanned out in all directions.  We had dogs rushing out.  It was just like in a movie.  We went everywhere I thought the girl could go and further.  I checked in all the caves, I checked all the cliffs, to see if she fell from any.  Nothing.  We couldn’t find a single trace, not even a torn piece of clothing, not even a footprint.  It was like she’d vanished.

            “After a few days, everyone had given up and gone home.  Even the girl’s parents had lost hope and left.  But, I kept looking.  You see, I had a feeling that she was out there.  I didn’t think she’d been kidnapped or killed.  I thought she was out there somewhere, where the dogs couldn’t smell her.

            “So, like we’re doing now, right here in this field, I burned cedar, and looked to the sparks for guidance.  I prayed to God for a clue, for a sign, and instead of an Indian Spirit, I saw Randy, young as the day he died.  And, he told me ‘Gary, you’ve got to get that girl right now.  She’s hurt, she can’t move, she’s starving, and she’s going to die if you can’t find her in the next few hours.’

            “I said, ‘Randy, it’s midnight.  I can’t see anything.  I’ve looked everywhere around here.  I just don’t know where she is.’”

            “Then, Randy’s ghost came out of the fire here, like a hologram, wearing his boots and camo, and he waved his arm and said, ‘come here, follow me!’ So, I followed him out into the woods there, and not so far from where you’re camping, but very far from where she started her journey, I found her beneath a felled tree with broken leg.  Bone sticking black out of the skin.  I don’t know how that tree managed to fall on her, but that’s what happened, and for some reason, the dogs never found her.  But, I think the dogs never found her so Randy could come back.  He could come back and show me that there is life after death, and that even the dead have concern for the living.”

            He closed his story by draining his cup and then filling it up with more vodka, dipping the bottle too far into his drink and splashing some on his sleeve.

            “Randy came back to me another time.  This time, my good friend Phil was dying of cancer, and I’d forgotten all about how Randy had come to me when the little girl was trapped under that tree.  You see, these miracles happen to us to let us know everything is going to be okay in the end, but we forget, especially when things don’t seem to be going the right way in our lives.

            “Phil was dying, and I couldn’t believe it.  I wasn’t ready for him to die, and I was at the hospital, and he took my hand and said, ‘Gary, you’ve been like a brother to me, you really are the best friend I ever could have asked for.’  And, I went into the other room, and I thought about shooting myself.  I always carry a gun on me, everywhere I go.  I think you’d have to be some kind of idiot not to.  But, that’s the only time I ever thought to turn it on myself.  I’d lost all faith in Jesus, I’d lost all heart and sense of purpose.  My life hadn’t turned out how I’d thought it’d turn out at all.  So I pointed the gun at my face, I put the barrel in my mouth, and then Randy stood there beside me, and he tapped me on the shoulder.  He said, ‘ah, ah Gary.  You don’t want to do that.  It’s not your time yet.  You’ve still got a lot to do in this life.  And, your Momma needs ya.  You don’t want to leave your Momma behind, do ya?’

            “So, I took the gun out of my mouth and then I saw Phil standing beside Randy, and they were smiling, and they shook my hand and said they’d see me some other time in the future, and then I saw a great white light, and that they both had angel wings.  They walked off into the shining horizon, off to paradise. 

            “When I came back into the hospital room, everyone was crying because Phil had died when I was gone, and people like Sheriff Jackson told me that I’d missed his death and I should have been there when he died, but I told them no, I saw him.  When I was in the bathroom, he came to me and told me he was better than he was before, that everything was going to be alright.  The Sheriff asked me what time I’d talked to Phil, and I told him precisely at 6:15.  You see, I always have this watch on me, and I check it all the time.  And, the doctor told me, ‘Damn Gary, that was the time of death.’  So, the first thing my good friend did after he died, was save me from making a stupid mistake.  I’ve never forgotten about the Spirits’ sense.  They’re out there, man, and they’ll come to you if you open your heart.”

            After his story, he burped, and then there was silence, except for the crackling fire.  Elle looked at Walt, and Walt looked at Elle.  Lynn looked at the ground.  Gary got up, taking the bottles with him, and he set them on the picnic table.  He tossed a log of maple into the fire, kicked it around with his steel toe, and sent up sparks from the breathing embers.

            “My grandfather fought in Vietnam,” said Lynn, trying to contribute.  “He has some incredible stories, but he doesn’t like to tell them often.”

            “As he shouldn’t,” said Gary, ambling back to his seat.  “It’s not something that people who lived through it like to remember.”

            “We were in a haunted house one Halloween,” she recalled.  “You know, those places where people dress up like ghosts or famous scary movie monsters?  And we were walking through a red hallway with a lot of doors and terrible people stalking around, jumping out, making noises.  My grandfather looked at me and said, ‘Lynn, do you know what this is supposed to be?’ And I said, ‘No.  What Grandpa?’

            “He said ‘Hell.  It’s supposed to be hell.  I know, because I’ve been there.’

            “And, the only thing I can think he could be referring to is the war.”

            “It was hell,” agreed Gary, “for many.  Then, they treated us like animals when we came back.  It’s a story often told.”

            Walt raised his head.

            “Lynn,” he said.  “Do you think the radio is draining the battery on your car?”

            “I think it’ll be fine,” said Gary.  “I know cars, and the radio doesn’t take that much juice.”

            “What about the lights?  Her door is open.”

            “Nah, should last for a few hours,” he said.

            “I was supposed to have a date tonight, you know that?  The girl comes over here sometimes and we have supper together.  She works in a diner down near Du Bois.  She used to be married to this guy Lenny, but he went to jail for robbing a TV, and she left him.  Now, she comes to see me.”

            “Why didn’t she come out to see you tonight?” asked Lynn, quietly.

            “I don’t know what the deal is,” slumped Gary.  “I kissed her last week, and then she left the house in a rush, and I haven’t spoken to her since then.”

            “You haven’t spoken to her in a week, but she was supposed to go on a date with you tonight?”

            “I’d already asked her before I kissed her, and she’d said yes then, but I’ve called her and left messages on her machine since, and she’s never gotten back to me.  So, I expect I shouldn’t expect her.  

“She’s just a loud-mouthed bitch anyway.”

Walt leaned over to Elle and whispered, “Is it making you uncomfortable, the way he’s looking at her?”

            Elle positioned her mouth closer to Walt’s ear, in a sneaky, head-tilted way, so the other side of the fire wouldn’t notice. 

            “It’s unnerving,” she said.  “We need to end this soon.”

            “Darlin’,” demanded Gary, “I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, bringing those bottles to the picnic table.  Make me a sangria, won’t ya?”

            Obedient, Lynn took his glass and stood.  She showed no shame or unnaturalness pouring more vodka and wine for this man, even in front of her friend.  Gary’s eyes, all the while, remained pressed against Lynn’s ass.  Even when Elle gave him the stern and protective stare of a good friend defending, he didn’t look away.  He observed with privilege, hypnotized and feasting, deserving, and Lynn didn’t notice, or show signs of noticing, even when Walt cleared his throat.

Asleep through the storm.

            Lynn filled up a small glass for herself, and noticed that the magnum of wine was almost empty already.  She gave the bottle a swirl.

            “It’s ok,” said Gary, “there’s another in the golf cart.  We can go all night if we want to.  I always keep a stockpile of booze at home, just over there.”

            He pointed to his house again, as if he hadn’t already pointed to his house a hundred times.

            “I don’t know if we’re going to make it all night,” said Walt.  “We have to get up early in the morning tomorrow, remember?”

            Gary threw his arm out to shoo Walt. 

            “We’re already well on our way, and there’s no getting off this train once it leaves the station.”

            Lynn returned with his drink and he patted her on that jean-framed obsession which had filled his world for the last minute or so, and she didn’t seem offended.

            ‘He’s just an old man,’ her face seemed to say. 

            ‘Is she into it?’ wondered Walt.  ‘Is she into being harassed like this?  She isn’t rebelling at all.  If anything, she’s scooting closer, being drawn in by his drunken dominion.’

            ‘No,’ Elle’s gaze told him.  ‘I’ve seen this before.  This is her natural defensive response.  She’d rather see him happy than upset, and she’s doing this to save the situation, to prevent a scene.’

            ‘I’m seeing major flaws in this tactic,’ Walt stared.  ‘This cannot escalate much further.  Doesn’t he know he’s in the wrong?’

            “When Vietnam ended,” said Gary, closed off, “and everyone was being shipped back home, it was my job to kill the dogs.”

            He sat up straight in his seat, with pride.

            “You may call me heartless, but that’s why they asked me to do it.  These dogs were trained to kill.  They couldn’t continue living.  They were dangerous weapons.  So, we took them all behind a hanger, lined them up.  They gave me a pistol, and I popped them off, one by one.  The dogs were extraordinarily well-behaved.  We asked them to sit, and they didn’t so much as bark at hearing the bullets.  Maybe they were used to the guns, having spent all of their lives in the war.”

            He chuckled softly and looked around, over his head and down at his feet.

            “So many stories to tell about this place,” he said.  “We once had a music festival, with Seattle grunge bands.  All these kids smoking drugs.  Their music was kind of like this music that you’re playing here, only theirs was better.  They had a lightshow, fire spinners, fog machines. 

“I’m good friends with the sheriff, and he helped us monitor it, keep it legal.  But, we had all kinds of kids like you coming out here and enjoying the property.  Must have been about fifteen years ago now.  I don’t know many of those people anymore.  I don’t know where they’ve gone to, or what’s become of them.  It seems to me that everybody leaves at some time or another.  Your life will be one way, and then it will change and never go back to what it was.

            “There was this time we had this Japanese man come and visit, and he went hiking in these woods, off all on his own.  Now, I’m warning you, don’t ever go hiking out in these woods all on your own, not unless you’re looking to get lost, or attacked by bears.  If you do go hiking tomorrow, bring a gun with you.  The stupidest thing is to ever leave home without a gun. 

“Well, this Japanese guy went out hiking without a gun, and he disappeared, and we had to form a search party.  We got all these police out here, and we all met right here in this field, and I marched a whole line of people out into the woods.  The dogs couldn’t find this guy, and the Sheriff gave up, and the party all left after two days of searching.  But, I knew he’d be out there, so I went out one night with my flashlight, and I was digging around some areas that we’d missed, and damn it if I didn’t find him.  He was howlin’ like a wolf because some large animal had chased him off the trail and bit his leg.  I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, he was Japanese, but I picked him up and carried him back to my house.  Momma called the police and Sheriff Jackson told me I was a hero, and the doctor said I’d saved his life.  The bite might have become infected on his leg without me to bring him back in time and give him hydrogen peroxide.  They weren’t even sure what kind of a bite it was from, and he described a large animal with red eyes that he’d never seen before.  Red-Eyes, we called the beast.  It’s out there.  We don’t know everything that’s out here in the woods, you know.  There are many mysteries surrounding us, just like Red-Eyes.

“And then that girl, Lenny’s old girl, was here, and she was cooking for me and Momma, and we kept hearing noises out in the trees, and I kept thinking of Red-Eyes and all those kids smoking drugs up here under that big circus tent, readin’ my palm and telling me I’d only live to eighty years old.  And, I wondered if it’s all connected.  Everything’s all connected, you see.”

            “You tired?” asked Walt.  

Elle nodded.

            Walt stood.

            “And, I thought about Randy with the angel wings when I was out with Lenny’s girl back here in this field, looking for the creature.  I told her I saw the angel wings on her already.”

            “Thank you for the fire and for the stories,” said Walt, “but it’s time for Elle and I to turn-in for the night.”

            Gary’s face sealed up tight like cork.

            “You guys are closing out?”

            “Yeah,” said Walt.  “I’m feeling beat.”

            “You haven’t touched your drinks,” he said.  “Are you not having a good time?”

            “No,” said Walt, “we’re having a wonderful time.  But, it’s late, and it’s time for us to go to bed.”

            Lynn stood, as well. 

            “It has been nice Mister, Gary.  We really appreciate all that you’ve done for us.”

            “I’m not ready to go in yet,” he said, sternly toward Walt, and then betrayed, toward Lynn.

            “That’s fine,” she said.  “you can ride the fire out.”

            “Yeah,” he said, looking lost, defeated, deflated and distant.  “I’ll just stay for another drink or two.”

            “Goodnight,” nodded Walt, and he caught up with Elle who’d already begun her descent down the hill toward the tents, avoiding any phatic contact with Gary.

            Lynn took the keys from the ignition, shutting off the background music, and the car lights went out once she closed the door.

            “Thank you!” she waved.  “It really was the nicest time.  Goodnight!”

            Her feet clomped down the hill, where the bending grass collected dew.

           

            In the tent, Walt could feel every rock beneath his back.  Elle was sprawled away from him, only her wrist touching his wrist.

            “I still hear him there,” she said.  “How long has it been now?”

            “Over forty-five minutes,” said Walt. 

“So much for getting any sleep tonight.”

            “I can’t sleep with a maniac like him out there.  He’s talking to himself.”

            “What do you think he’s saying?” asked Elle.

            They were both silent for a moment, listening for any audible word in the angry mush, the only definite words being when Gary spat out an aggressive ‘fucking…’ followed by several metered mumbles, and then another sharp spit of ‘Jesus.’  After a soft rumble, that could have been his volcanic belly, he chanted ‘heroes.’

            “Do you think that Lynn’s awake?” asked Elle.

            “I don’t see how she couldn’t be,” said Walt.  “How could anybody sleep, listening to this?”

“We’re defenseless here.  He says he’s got a gun.   He’s said it several times.”

            “He’s just a drunk old man,” said Walt.  “He’ll either pass-out soon or go away.”

            “All the heroes die,” they heard, louder.

            “Why did Lynn let him treat her like that?” asked Walt.  “You saw that right?  He stared at her like a stripper, and then he smacked her,” he choked out the word, “ass.”

            “That’s her way of dealing with the situation,” Elle said.  “I wouldn’t have acted that way, and I know you wouldn’t have acted that way if you were in her shoes, but that’s how she deals with things.”

            “It’s like she was completely unaware that anything was wrong,” said Walt.  “Am I the crazy one here?  Do you think I’m mistaken, being alarmed like I am?”

            “No,” said Elle.  “I think this has turned into a bad situation.”

            “Brought upon by our unnecessary kindness to a stranger,” finished Walt.  “Here’s to being in the right, and to being in the wrong.  If we’d told him to get lost right up front, maybe he would have stayed away.”

            “Or maybe he would have snuck up on us in the night, murdered you, and raped us,” said Elle.  “You never know how things are going to go down.  At least now we know that he has problems, and to be on our guard.  At least we know where he is outside.  We have the upper hand.”

            “The bears,” they heard Gary grumble.

            “Next time, we’re staying in a hotel,” said Walt.  

“The reason we haven’t heard from Lynn, and the reason we’re still pretending to be asleep out here, is because she doesn’t want to be blamed for this.”

            “Why should she be blamed for this?”

            “She’s the one who wanted to go camping.”

            “It’s not like she predicted that things would come to this.  Nobody could.”

            “You could equally be blamed for this, for inviting her,” said Walt.  “I never would have come here if I were calling the shots.  I prevent things like this from happening, by actively avoiding them in the first place.

“This isn’t my fault,” she cried.

“I lose a little work,” said Walt.  “I fall a little out of style, and suddenly, you’re weeping for no reason, you exclude me from everything that you do, the apartment feels like I don’t belong there, like I’m an intruder.  You’ve lost all faith in me, and now I have no say in anything.  I can’t even veto camping.”

             “You’re aggravated and taking your paranoid daydreams too far, like you always do,” she growled.

            “And why shouldn’t I take my thoughts too far?” he asked.  “Envisioning dangerous scenarios is how I protect myself.  Am I not allowed to say what I feel?  Am I not allowed to say what we choose not to say, because we might be too afraid of the repercussions?  I’m in a bad place, and I need a job.  I miss our time in the city, and I want to get us back there.  We never should have left it.  Since we’ve been home, I’ve had no power.  And, now, when trying to get that power back, when trying to return us to our full capacity, you invite her to come here with us? 

“She’s always in the way.  She’s always between us.  I pretend like she’s a friend, but she isn’t my friend.  She’s trying to remove me from your life.  I’d go as far as to say that she wants to take my place.  Or are you as oblivious to that as she was to Gary’s eyes?”

            Elle turned her head toward the corner of the tent, her face against the cold plastic tarp beneath them.

            “This has not been a very nice trip,” she said.  

“I thought it would be great, with you and my friend, in New York.”

            “Every truth has to surface sometime,” said Walt, “and for months now, I’ve felt diminished from your life.”

            He turned his head to the other side, his feet becoming cold under the heavy, damp blankets.

            “Once a couple brings up the very idea of breaking-up, I feel like that’s the end of it.  We’ve been battling it out, but it’s been very difficult for us, very difficult.  Life shouldn’t feel so choked shut.  So dammed.”

            They were quiet under the covers, cold and magmic, a polycephalic organism, looking at the world in opposite directions.

            A loud switch shot through the night and a bright light shone onto their tent, exposing their silhouettes to any outside observer.  As they scrambled in their small quarters, trying to make sense of what was happening, Gary let out a loud ‘weeeew whoooo!’ as harsh as his throat could muster.  The golf cart was parked now at the top of the hill, and the searchlight was on at full power, aimed directly at their tent.

            “What do we do?” cried Elle, hysterical.  Walt grabbed her hand and they laid down still, playing opossum-dead.  Gary called out an incomprehensible mess of shouts and slurs.  Then, they heard the clang of a metal pipe against the side of the golf cart, sending echoes far into the valley.

            “Get out of here!” he yelled.  “Get out of here, bears!”

            Elle hid her face in Walt’s arm and they laid there, tense beneath the covers.  They laid there until they heard the engine start back up.  Gary placed the golf cart in reverse, and the shouts and the clanging of his pipe faded off into the distance.  Walt unzipped the tent.  Putting on his pants as he went, and reaching for his glasses in a pouch at the side, he hoppled barefoot out into the forest.

            “What are you going to do?” she asked.

            “We have to fool him,” he said.  “If he comes back and thinks we’re still in the tent, I’ll hit him with a rock from behind.”

            Walt went down to the creek-bed, and not seeing the water, wound up ankle deep in it.  The cold was jarring to him, and he reached his hands down into the clear stream, finding a large, smooth oval.

            Elle withdrew back into the tent and zipped it closed, and Walt wandered into the trees, following the creek-line, but keeping the tent and the hillside in sight.  Coming up the hill, Walt saw the searchlight darting across the night, competing with the moon.  Gary’s hollers reverberated nearer.  Walt gripped the brick-sized stone tighter in his hand, and looked at its blue color, and imagined that this stone could soon be stained dark with wine, and in this moment, he felt joy in the necessity of his role, as a protector.  He felt brave for having left the tent, with his plan to ambush the drunk.  He hoped Gary would stay away, but no, if Gary came back around, he hoped it would escalate to a marriage between the stone and Gary’s skull.  These murderous impulses, perhaps they are always there, and one wishes secretly for situations of violence to arise, so one can act without thought, primal and base.  Walt understood, with clarity, how all the prior events in his life, and all of those before his life, had led him to this.  His downfall, his unemployment, Elle’s growing distrust, her parents, where they liked to meet on the weekends.  All of it had led him here to strike a man down, to end what he despised.

            The golf cart did come back around, and Walt hid behind a tree, which, like others on the periphery, was thin, none of this being old-growth.  Gary flung his arms around and screamed like a cowboy on a bull.  The golf cart swayed back and forth, and he drove it hard, perhaps wanting to flip it, wanting it crush him and end him.  But, the golf cart didn’t flip.  He drove it to the edge of the hill again, parked it, and reached up over the roof again to point the searchlight down onto the tent.  He screamed and shouted like a jackal, like a coyote, and Walt walked forward, unhidden by the trees, rock in hand.

            Gary hopped out of the cart and swung his metal pipe against the frame several times like a lumberjack chopping down, or like a medieval be-header, armed with an axe, over and over.  But, even in his frenzy, he heard Walt, with gravel underfoot, and he turned the light on its lazy Susan, around to blind the intruder. 

            The light stretched all colors into one, and Walt shielded his eyes with his arm.  With what vision was available, he saw Gary swinging the pipe at the empty bottles on the picnic table, shattering one into the fire, where the embers were still cooking strong.  Walt didn’t slow his approach, and he stepped forward.

            “The hero, Beowulf,” said Gary.  “Look now at the hero, defending his women.  But, you weren’t there.  You weren’t in the war.  If you had been, then you would know.

            “All the men who act like heroes wind up dead.  All the heroes died.

            “I knew many heroes, and they’re all dead.  Even Phil.  He was a hero, and he died.”           

            Walt didn’t slow.

            “Gary, we’re trying to sleep.”

            “Look at the hero,” said Gary.  “Coming like he’s not afraid.  I can see you shaking.  You know what happens to heroes?”

            “Gary,” Walt strode forward, knuckles popping over the stone in hand, “we’re just trying to camp for one night.  We paid you to stay here, and in the morning, we’re going to go away.”

            “You wouldn’t be scared if you were a believer,” said Gary, turning to face Walt fully.  “I saw your face earlier.  You aren’t a believer.  You’ll go to hell when you die.  You think there’s nothing up there, you think there’s nothing after this, but you’re wrong.  I’ve seen it.  That’s why I’m not afraid.  That’s why you’re afraid, and that’s why I’m not afraid.”

            Gary dropped his metal pipe and stepped forward.  “I’m not afraid.”

            Walt heard the zipper open on his tent, and Elle came out to see them.

            The men were close on the hill now, both stepping with caution toward each other.  Their faces were hidden by spider-legged tree branches, blackened cracks in the sky beyond.

            “Gary,” said Walt.  “I’m telling you now to go home.”

            “I am home hero,” Gary said.  He looked down at Elle, and shouted, “here’s your hero!  Don’t you feel safe now?”

            Gary stared Walt down, all the arteries in his eyes pumping thick to capacity, breath heaving through his clomped teeth.  He raised his arms above his head. 

Walt held his arms out to show he had no weapons, and that he’d come in peace.  But, the rock in his hand destroyed that façade, and he didn’t let it go.

            “Gary, be quiet, turn your light off, and go to sleep.”

            “I’m doing you a favor, hero,” he breathed.  “I was scaring away the bears.  You do know there are bears around here, don’t you?”

            “I’m not afraid of the bears,” said Walt.

            “You should be afraid of the bears,” said Gary, closing in.  “Don’t you know what a bear can do to you?”

            He clasped his hands around Walt’s throat, and over Elle’s scream, and Gary’s closing pupils, Walt felt for the first time in his life how a pair of hands felt around his throat, with intent to kill.  But, through this contact, Walt felt that the weakness of the man had been made weaker by the drink, and it wasn’t difficult to brush the hands away like feathers.  He dropped the rock onto the ground, and shoved Gary only hard enough to clear him of his space. 

            “Get out of here,” commanded Walt, and in shame, Gary stumbled around until he found the picnic table.  He put both his hands on the table, shaking it, and knocked the remaining bottle off.

            “Get away from us.”

            Walt turned his back and walked to the tents, tall, and without fear of an assault from behind.  Still, he kept his senses sharp, and listened for the clumsy sound of Gary reaching for his gun.  He ran through the scenario in his brain, imagined the bullet tearing through the bone beside his ear.

            But, Gary didn’t reach for his gun.  Instead, he wailed like the ghouls he wished to become, a ghost story, one of the fireside wolves, and he flipped the picnic table into the fire, and shouted his way back to the golf cart, moaning.  His fun and disjointed screams had become sad and lonesome, indignant howls, and he drove off again to the other portion of the field, his searchlight fixed on the shining stars.

            Once Walt reached the darkness of the wood, and he knew Gary’s eyes were off him, he ran to the tent, where Elle jumped into his arms.

            “Let’s get out of here,” said Walt, quivering. 

            And, Elle ran over to Lynn’s tent, calling her name, “Lynn!  Lynn!” 

            She shook the tent and then unzipped it herself.

            “Lynn, we’ve got to get out of here!  We’re leaving!”

            Lynn rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

            “What time is it?”

            “Time to go,” said Elle.  “He tried to strangle Walt.”

 

            Walt didn’t de-assemble the tent.  He and Elle grabbed their blankets and they left for the car.

            Lynn, without context, who had not woken during the scuffle, turned on her flashlight, put her clothes on slowly, rolled up her sleeping bag, and then folded her tent.

            At the car, Walt found that the car was locked.  Erratic, he and Elle flipped the handle and shouted for Lynn to hurry. 

            And, over the hill, the maniacal golf cart driver wound closer, yelling joyfully again, as though he’d forgotten what he’d recently been through, or had decided to stop caring about it, but knew, somewhere deep down, that he had to get revenge, that it would be fun to destroy something else, anything, again.

            “You left your tent behind,” Lynn said, coming up the hill, and if it had been Walt alone who’d been acting crazy, perhaps she would have come up the hill slower still.

            She unlocked the door with the fob and Elle and Walt dove in.  The searchlight grew bigger, the cart coming closer. 

            And, they felt the trunk door open.

            “The trunk?” squealed Walt.  He looked out the back window where he could see a sleepy Lynn tucking her tent away snugly into it’s allotted spot. 

            “Take a hint from our immediacy here?”

            Elle kicked open the door, and shouted, “Lynn, get in the car!  We’ve got to go!”

            “What’s the big rush?” she asked, dropping into the driver’s seat, annoyed.

 

            The golf cart came close, and tried to chase down the car, but after they pulled away, Walt watched Gary circle around in his yard, a loop of lone insanity, howling. 

Lynn drove back the way they’d entered, and made it to the forest trail. 

            The forest was dark, and the headlights diffused against a strand of mist hovering off the ground, and Lynn tried to remember, calculating, “it was a right turn here, and then this little dip here.”

            “I remember that tree with all the hanging vines,” said Elle.

            “I don’t remember any of this,” said Walt.  “We’re lost.”

            “We’re not lost,” said Lynn.

            On the left side of them, they passed a young girl, standing naked by the trail, her eyes, caught spectral in the headlights.  And they came into the sleepy town.  Smoke rose from the smoldered pits.  None of the windows had light behind them.  But, the people were standing in places that they’d been standing in before.  The men by the tree rose their whisky bottles and cheered.  The women scowled and blew sarcastic kisses off their cigarettes.  The fiddle player kicked the fire and tore his bow across the strings, shrouded in sparks, the devil’s dance. 

            Lynn took the path they’d entered through earlier, passing another child on the right, sitting unoccupied, on a stump, picking at his teeth with a grey rib bone. 

And, none felt relief until they came down the hill and saw the lights of the RVs, like established civilization in the distance.  They came into the camp, where several men were meandering still, and some sat around fires with marshmallows, large men in overalls, wearing trucker hats, clapping hands and raising fists.  These men laughed at the car as it went by, cheersing with their beer cans high in the air, suds flying, another duped intruder, chased out from their home. 

Lynn took her speed higher on the way out than on her way in, and in the field behind the large hand-painted sign, Walt saw the house he hadn’t been able to see before, a small ranch with plastic siding, something blending perfectly into the landscape, so as not to be noticed, even here.  Behind it, in the backyard, the golf cart and its light wound around in circles, high up on the slope.

 

            The trio didn’t speak until they were on the highway, and even then, they didn’t know what to say.

            “I left my tent there,” said Elle. 

            “We could go back,” Walt suggested.

            “Do you think he wanted us to keep the radio on in order to drain the battery out?  Do you think he planned on this from the start?”

            “I don’t know,” said Walt.  “Right now, I couldn’t say. 

            “I wonder if he’ll remember in the morning.”

            “Where are we going to stay?” asked Lynn, stoic.  “Where’ll we find a room at this hour?”

            Walt called several places in Du Bois, and he found a hotel willing to take their money.  The stretch of highway between the two exits was long and empty.  To kill the emptiness, Lynn turned up the radio, but hearing only static, she pressed the scan button, and then they all forgot that she’d pressed it.  They stared at the road, watching the yellow lines jump forward at them as the station changed from shade of static to shade of static, then from genre to genre, then from program to program.  Walt tried counting the reflectors on the side of the road and lost count before he even began.

            They checked into their room.  It was basic and clean enough, with two beds.  Lynn took one, and Walt and Elle took the other.  But, despite the close quarters, Walt felt far from Elle on the bed.  He felt she was closer to Lynn’s side of the room and would remain there without him.  He fell asleep, feeling exposed and discarded, and woke later in the night without blankets.  He walked into the bathroom, full of fluorescent lighting and mirrors, and he stood in place on the cold tile.  In the mirror he saw a dark figure standing behind him.  The figure was taller than him, shrouded with a cloak or blurred from existence, but there.  Even in a hotel bathroom, one is an intruder, everywhere in this land.

            “It isn’t wise to expect the dawn.  So light your fires, and see through night.  What stories will you tell?”

 

             Sundown in America- Written by Adam Pettit- 2017-18

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

Adam Pettit