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She lay on her side in the leaves (damp, but not all nasty-squelchy like the ones in the hollow beneath the fallen tree), breathing fast, feeling a pulse throb between her eyes. She was suddenly, dismally aware that she didn't know if she was going in the right direction anymore or not. She had kept looking back over her shoulder, and she might not be.
Go back to the tree, then. The fallen tree. Stand where you came out from underneath and look straight ahead and that's the direc-tion you want to go in, the direction of the main trail.
But was it? If so, how come she hadn't come to the main trail already?
Tears prickled the corners of her eyes. Trisha blinked them back savagely. If she started to cry, she wouldn't be able to tell herself she wasn't frightened. If she started to cry, anything might happen.
She walked slowly back to the fallen, moss-plated tree, hating to go in the wrong direction even for a few seconds, hating to go back to where she had seen the snake (poison-ous or not, she loathed them), knowing she had to. She spotted the divot in the leaves where she'd been when she saw (and—oh God—felt) the snake, a girl-length smutch on the floor of the forest. It was already filling up with water.
Looking at it, she rubbed a hand dispiritedly down the front of her shirt again—all damp and muddy. That her shirt should be damp and muddy from crawling under a tree was somehow the most alarming thing so far. It suggested that there had been a change of plan... and when the new plan included crawling through soggy hollows under fallen trees, the change was not for the better.
Why had she left the path in the first place? Why had she left sight of the path? Just to pee? To pee when she didn't even need to that badly? If so, she must have been crazy.
And then some further craziness had possessed her, making her think she could walk through the uncharted woods (this was the phrase which occurred to her now) in safety. Well, she had learned something today, indeed she had. She had learned to stay on the path. No matter what you had to do or how bad you had to do it, no matter how much yatata-yatata you had to listen to, it was better to stay on the path.
When you were on the path your Red Sox shirt stayed clean and dry. On the path there was no disturbing little minnow swimming in the hollow place between your chest and your stomach. On the path you were safe.
Trisha reached around to the small of her back and felt a ragged hole in her shirt. The stub of branch had punched through, then. She had been hoping it hadn't. And when she brought her fingers back, there were little smears of blood on the tips. Trisha made a sighing, sobbing sound and wiped her fingers on her jeans.
“Relax, at least it wasn't a rusty nail,” she said. “Count your blessings.” That was one of her mother's sayings, and it didn't help. Trisha had never felt less blessed in her life.
She looked along the length of the tree, even scuffed one sneakered foot through the leaves, but there was no sign of the snake. It probably hadn't been one of the biting kind, anyway, but God, they were so horrible. All legless and slith-31 ery, flipping their nasty tongues in and out. She could hardly stand to think of it, even now—how it had pulsed under her palm like a cold muscle.
Why didn't I wear boots? Trisha thought, looking at her low-topped Reeboks. Why am I out here in a pair of damned sneakers?
The answer, of course, was because sneakers were fine for the path... and the plan had been to stay on the path.
Trisha closed her eyes for a moment. “I'm okay, though,”
she said. “All I have to do is keep my head and not go bazonka. I'll hear people over there in a minute or two, any-way.”
This time her voice convinced her a little and she felt bet-ter.
She turned around, placed her feet on either side of the black divot where she had lain, and put her butt against the mossy trunk of the tree. There. Straight ahead. The main trail. Had to be.
Maybe. And maybe I better wait here. Wait for voices. Make sure I'm going the right way.
But she couldn't bear to wait. She wanted to be back on the path and putting these scary ten minutes (or maybe now it was fifteen) behind her as soon as she could. So she slipped her pack over her shoulders again—there was no angry, distracted, but basically nice big brother to check the straps for her this time—and set off again. The minges and noseeums had found her now, so many of them buzzing around her head that her vision seemed to dance with black specks. She waved at them but didn't slap. Slap at mosqui-toes, but it's better just to wave at the little ones, her Mom had told her... perhaps on the same day she had taught Trisha how girls peed in the woods. Quilla Andersen (only then she had still been Quilla McFarland) said that slapping actually seemed to draw the minges and noseeums... and of course it made the slapper increasingly aware of her dis-comfort.
When it comes to bugs in the woods, Trisha's Mom had said, it's better to think like a horse. Pretend you've got a tail to swish em away with.
Standing by the fallen tree, waving at the bugs but not slapping at them, Trisha had fixed her eyes on a tall pine about forty yards away... forty yards north, if she still had her bearings. She walked to this, and once she was standing there with her hand on the big pine's sap-tacky trunk, she looked back at the fallen tree. Straight line? She thought so.
Encouraged, she now sighted on a clump of bushes dot-ted with bright red berries. Her mother had pointed them out on one of their nature-walks, and when Trisha explained they were birdberries and deadly poison—Pepsi Robichaud had told her so—her mother had laughed and said, The famous Pepsi doesn't know everything after all. That's kind of a relief. Those are checkerberries, Trish. They're not a bit poison. They taste like Teaberry gum, the kind that comes in the pink pack. Her mother had tossed a handful of the berries into her mouth, and when she didn't fall down, choking and convulsing, Trisha had tried a few herself. To her they had tasted like gumdrops, the green ones that made your mouth feel kind of tingly.
She walked to the bushes, thought about picking a few berries just to cheer herself up, but didn't. She wasn't hungry, and had never felt less capable of cheering up. She inhaled the spicy smell of the waxy green leaves (also good to eat, Quilla had said, although Trisha had never tried them—she wasn't a woodchuck, after all), then looked back at the pine. She ascertained that she was still traveling in a straight line, and picked out a third landmark—this time a split rock that looked like a hat in an old black-and-white movie. Next came a cluster of birches, and from the birches she walked slowly to a luxuriant nestle of ferns halfway up a slope.
She was concentrating so fiercely on keeping each land-mark in view (no more looking back over your shoulder, sweetheart) that she was standing beside the ferns before she realized she was, you should pardon the pun, overlooking the forest for the trees. Going landmark to landmark was all very well, and she thought she had managed to keep on a straight line... but what if it was a straight line in the wrong direc-tion?
It might be the wrong direction just by a little, but she had to have gone wrong. If not, she would've come to the trail again by now. Why, she must have walked...
“Cripes,” she said, and there was a funny little gulp in her voice that she didn't like, “it must be a mile. A mile at least.”
Bugs all around her. Minges and noseeums in front of her eyes, hateful mosquitoes seeming to hang like helicopters by her ears, giving off that maddening warble-whine. She slapped at one and missed, succeeding only in making her own ear ring. And still she had to restrain herself from smacking again. If she started doing that, she'd end up whacking away at herself like a character in an old cartoon.
She dropped her pack, squatted, undid the buckles, turned back the flap. Here was her blue plastic poncho, and the paper sack with the lunch she had fixed herself; here was her Gameboy and some suntan lotion (wouldn't need that, with the sun now completely gone and the last patches of blue overhead filling in); here was her bottle of water and a bottle of Surge and her Twinkies and a bag of chips. No bug-spray, though. Wouldn't you know it. So Trisha put on the suntan lotion instead—it might keep at least the minges away—and then returned everything to her pack. She paused just a moment to look at the Twinkies, then dumped the package in with the rest. As a rule she loved them— when she got to be Pete's age her face would probably be one great big pimple if she didn't learn to lay off the sweets—but for the time being she still felt totally unhungry.
Besides, you may never get to be Pete's age, that disquieting inner voice said. How could anyone have such a cold and scary voice inside them? Such a traitor to the cause? You may never get out of these woods.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” she hissed, and buckled the pack's flap with trembling fingers. That done, she started to get up... and then paused, one knee planted in the soft earth beside the ferns, her head up, scenting the air like a fawn on its first expedition away from its mother's side.
Only Trisha wasn't smelling; she was listening, focusing on that one sense with all of her concentration.
Branches rattling in a faint breath of breeze. Whining mosquitoes (rotten, nasty old things). The woodpecker. The far-off caw of a crow. And, at the furthest outpost between silence and audition, the drone of a plane. No voices from the path. Not a single voice. It was as if the trail to North Conway had been canceled. And as the plane's motor faded away completely, Trisha conceded the truth.
She got to her feet, her legs feeling heavy, her stomach feeling heavy. Her head felt light and strange, a gas-filled balloon tethered to a lead weight. She was suddenly drown-ing in isolation, choking on a bright and yet oppressive sense of herself as a living being cast out from her fellows.
She had somehow gotten out of bounds, wandered off the playing field and into a place where the rules she was used to no longer applied.
“Hey!” she screamed. “Hey, someone, do you hear me? Do you hear me? Hey!” She paused, praying for an answer to come back, but no answer came and so she brought the worst out at last: “Help me, I'm lost! Help me, I'm lost!” Now the tears began to come and she could no longer hold them back, could no longer kid herself that she was in charge of this sit-uation.
Her voice trembled, became first the wavery voice of a little kid and then almost the shriek of a baby who lies for-gotten in her pram, and that sound frightened her more than anything else so far on this awful morning, the only human sound in the woods her weepy, shrieking voice call-ing for help, calling for help because she was lost.
SHE YELLED for perhaps fifteen minutes, sometimes cup-ping her hands around her mouth and turning her voice in the direction she imagined the main trail must be, mostly just standing there by the ferns and screaming. She gave one final shriek—no words, just a high birdcall of combined anger and fear—so loud it hurt her throat, then sat down beside her pack and put her face in her hands and cried. She cried hard for maybe five minutes (it was impossible to tell for sure, her watch was back home, lying on the table next to her bed, another smooth move by the Great Trisha), and when she stopped she felt a little better... except for the bugs. The bugs were everywhere, crawling and whining and buzzing, trying to drink her blood and sip her sweat.
The bugs were driving her crazy. Trisha got to her feet again, waving the air with her Red Sox cap, reminding her-self not to slap, knowing she would slap, and soon, if things didn't change. She wouldn't be able to help herself.
Walk or stay where she was? She didn't know which would be best; she was now too frightened for anything much like rational thought. Her feet decided for her and Trisha got 37. moving again, looking around fearfully as she went, wiping her swollen eyes with her arm. The second time she raised the arm to her face she saw half a dozen mosquitoes on it and slapped at them blindly, killing three. Two had been full to bursting. The sight of her own blood didn't ordinarily upset her, but this time all the strength went out of her legs and she sat down again on the needle-carpet in a cluster of old pines and cried some more. She felt headachy and a little whoopsy in her stomach. But I was just in the van a little while ago, she thought over and over. Just in the van, the back seat of the van, listening to them snipe at each other. And then she thought of her brother's angry voice drifting through the trees: —don't know why we have to pay for what you guys did wrong! It occurred to her that those might be the last words she would ever hear Pete say, and she actually shuddered at the idea, as at the sight of some monstrous shape in the shadows.
Her tears dried up more quickly this time and the weep-ing wasn't so intense. When she got to her feet again (wav-ing her cap around her head almost without realizing it) she felt halfway to being calm. By now they'd surely know she was gone. Mom's first thought would be that Trisha had gotten pissed at them for arguing and gone back to the Car-avan.
They'd call out for her, then retrace their steps, asking people they met on the trail if they'd seen a girl in a Red Sox cap (she's nine but tall for her age and looks older, Trisha could hear her Mom saying), and when they got back to the park-ing area and found she wasn't in the van, they'd start get-ting seriously worried. Mom would be frightened. The thought of her fright made Trisha feel guilty as well as afraid. There was going to be a fuss, maybe a big one involv-ing the game wardens and the Forest Service, and it was all her fault. She had left the path.
This added a new layer of anxiety to her already dis-turbed mind and Trisha began to walk fast, hoping to get back to the main trail before all those calls could be made, before she could turn into what her mother called A Public Spectacle. She walked without taking her previous, meticu-lous care in moving from point to point in a straight line, turning more and more to the west without realizing it, turning away from the Appalachian Trail and most of its subsidiary paths and trails, turning in a direction where there was little but deep second-growth woods choked with underbrush, tangled ravines, and ever more difficult terrain.
She alternately called and listened, listened and called. She would have been stunned to learn that her mother and brother were still locked in their argument and did not know, even yet, that Trisha was missing.
She walked faster and faster, waving at the swirling clouds of minges, no longer bothering to skirt clumps of bushes but simply plowing straight through them. She listened and called, called and listened, except she wasn't listening, not really, not anymore. She didn't feel the mosquitoes that were clustered on the back of her neck, lined up just below her hairline like drinkers at happy hour, guzzling their fill; she didn't feel the noseeums caught and wriggling in the faint sticky lines where her tears were still drying.
Her giving way to panic wasn't sudden, as it had been at the feel of the snake, but weirdly gradual, a drawing in from the world, a shutting down of outer awareness. She walked faster without minding her way; called for help without hearing her own voice; listened with ears that might not have heard a returning shout from behind the nearest tree.
And when she began to run she did it without realizing. I have to be calm, she thought as her sneakered feet sped past the point of jogging. I was just in the van, she thought as the run became a sprint. I don't know why we should pay for what you guys did wrong, she thought, ducking—barely—a jut-ting branch that seemed to thrust itself at one of her eyes. It scraped the side of her face instead, drawing a thin scrawl of blood from her left cheek.
The breeze in her face as she ran, tearing through a thicket with a crackling sound that seemed very distant (she was unaware of the thorns which ripped at her jeans and tore shallow gouges on her arms), was cool and strangely exhilarating. She pelted up a slope, now running full-out with her hat on crooked and her hair flying behind her—the rubber-band which had held it in a ponytail was long since lost—hurdling small trees which had fallen in some long-ago storm, topping a ridge... and suddenly there was a long blue-gray valley spread out before her with brazen granite cliffs rising on the far side, miles from where she was. And directly in front of her nothing but a gray shimmer of early summer air through which she would fall to her death, turning over and over and screaming for her mother.
Her mind was gone again, lost in that white no-brain roar of terror, but her body recognized that stopping in time to avoid going over the cliff-edge was an impossibility. All she could hope to do was redirect her motion before it was too late. Trisha swerved to the left, and as she did her right foot kicked out over the drop. She could hear the pebbles dislodged by that foot rattling down the ancient rock wall in a little stream.
Trisha bolted along the strip where the needle-coated floor of the forest gave way to the bald rock marking the edge of the cliff. She ran with some confused and roaring knowledge of what had almost happened to her, and also some vague memory of a science fiction movie in which the hero had lured a rampaging dinosaur into running over a cliff to its death.
Ahead of her an ash tree had fallen with its final twenty feet jutting over the drop like the prow of a ship, and Trisha grabbed it with both arms and hugged it, her scraped and bloody cheek jammed against the smooth trunk, each breath whistling into her with a shriek and emerging in a terrified sob. She stood that way for a long time, shuddering all over and embracing the tree. At last she opened her eyes.
Her head was turned to the right and she was looking down before she could stop herself.
At this point the cliff's drop was only fifty feet, ending in a pile of glacial, splintery rubble that sprouted little clumps of bright green bushes. There was a heap of rotting trees and branches, as well—deadwood blown over the cliff's edge in some long-ago storm. An image came to Trisha then, one that was terrible in its utter clarity. She saw herself falling toward that jackstraw pile, screaming and waving her arms as she went down; saw a dead branch punching through the undershelf of her jaw and up between her teeth, tacking her tongue to the roof of her mouth like a red memo, then spearing into her brain and killing her.
“No!” she screamed, both revolted by the image and ter-rified by its plausibility. She caught her breath.
“I'm all right,” she said, speaking low and fast. The bramble-scratches on her arms and the scrape on her cheek throbbed and stung with sweat—she was just now becom-ing aware of these little hurts. “I'm okay. I'm all right. Yeah, baby.” She let go of the ash tree, swayed on her feet, then clutched it again as panic lunged inside her head. An irra-41 tional part of her actually expected the ground to tilt and spill her off the edge.
“I'm okay,” she said, still low and fast. She licked her upper lip and tasted damp salt. “I'm okay, I'm okay.” She repeated it over and over, but it was still three minutes before she could persuade her arms to loosen their death-clutch on the ash tree a second time. When she finally man-aged it, Trisha stepped back, away from the drop. She reset her cap (turning it around so the bill pointed backward without even thinking about it) and looked out across the valley. She saw the sky, now sagging with rainclouds, and she saw roughly six trillion trees, but she saw no sign of human life—not even smoke from a single campfire.
“I'm all right, though—I'm okay.” She took another step back from the drop and uttered a little scream as something (snakes snakes) brushed the backs of her knees. Just bushes, of course.
More checkerberry bushes, the woods were full of em, yuck-yuck.
And the bugs had found her again. They were re-forming their cloud, hundreds of tiny black spots dancing around her eyes, only this time the spots were bigger and seemed to be bursting open like the blooms of black roses.
Trisha had just time enough to think, I'm fainting, this is fainting, and then she went down on her back in the bushes, her eyes rolled up to whites, the bugs hanging in a shim-mering cloud above her small pallid face. After a moment or two the first mosquitoes alit on her eyelids and began to feed.
Top of the Fourth
HER MOTHER was moving furniture—that was Trisha's first returning thought. Her second was that Dad had taken her to Good Skates in Lynn and what she heard was the sound of kids rollerblading past on the old canted track. Then something cold splashed onto the bridge of her nose and she opened her eyes. Another cold drop of water splashed down dead center on her forehead. Bright light ran across the sky, making her wince and squint. This was followed by a sec-ond crash of thunder that startled her into a sideways roll.
She pulled instinctively into a fetal position, uttering a croaky little scream as she did so. Then the skies opened.
Trisha sat up, grabbing and replacing her baseball cap when it fell off without even thinking about it, gasping like someone who has been tossed rudely into a cold lake (and that was what it felt like). She staggered to her feet. Thun-der boomed again and lightning opened a purple seam in the air. As she stood with rain dripping from the tip of her nose and her hair lying lank against her cheeks, she saw a tall, half-dead spruce on the valley floor below her suddenly 43. explode and fall in two flaming pieces. A moment later the rain was sheeting down so thickly that the valley was only a sketched ghost wrapped in gray gauze.
She backed up, getting into the cover of the woods again.
She knelt, opened her pack, and got out the blue poncho.
She put it on (better late than never, her father would have said) and sat on a fallen tree. Her head was still woozy and her eyelids were all swollen and itchy. The surrounding woods caught some of the rain but not all of it; the down-pour was too fierce. Trisha flipped up the poncho's hood and listened to the drops tap on it, like rain on the roof of a car.
She saw the ever-present cloud of bugs dancing in front of her eyes and waved at them with a strengthless hand. Noth-ing makes them go away and they're always hungry, they fed on my eyelids when I was passed out and they'll feed on my dead body, she thought, and began to cry again. This time it was low and dispirited. As she wept she continued waving at the bugs, cringing each time the thunder roared overhead.
With no watch and no sun there was no time. All Trisha knew was that she sat there, a small figure in a blue poncho huddled on a fallen tree, until the thunder began to fade eastward, sounding to her like a vanquished but still trucu-lent bully. Rain dripped down on her. Mosquitoes hummed, one caught between the inside wall of her poncho's hood and the side of her head. She jabbed a thumb against the outside of the hood and the hum abruptly stopped.
“There,” she said disconsolately. “That takes care of you, you're jam.” She started to get up and her stomach rum-bled.
She hadn't been hungry before but she was now. The thought that she had been lost long enough to get hungry was awful in its own way. She wondered how many more awful things were waiting and was glad she didn't know, couldn't see. Maybe none, she told herself. Hey, girl, get happy—maybe all the awful things are behind you now.
Trisha took off her poncho. Before opening her pack, she looked ruefully down at herself. She was wet from head to toe and covered with pine needles from her faint—her very first fainting spell. She would have to tell Pepsi, always assuming she ever saw Pepsi again.
“Don't start that,” she said, and unbuckled the pack's flap.
She took out the stuff she had brought to eat and drink, lay-ing the items out before her in a neat line. At the sight of the paper sack with her lunch in it, her stomach rumbled more fiercely. How late was it? Some deep mental clock attached to her metabolism suggested it might be around three in the afternoon, eight hours since she'd sat in the breakfast nook slurping up Corn Flakes, five since she'd started off on this endless idiotic shortcut. Three o'clock. Maybe even four.
In her lunch-sack was a hardboiled egg still in the shell, a tuna fish sandwich, and some celery sticks. There was also the bag of chips (small), the bottle of water (pretty big), the bottle of Surge (the large twenty-ounce size, she loved Surge), and the Twinkies.
Looking at the bottle of lemon-lime soda, Trisha sud-denly felt more thirsty than hungry... and mad for sugar.
She spun off the cap, brought the bottle to her lips, then paused. It wouldn't be smart to go chugging half of it down, she thought, thirsty or not. She might be out here awhile. Part of her mind moaned and tried to draw away from that idea, just call it ridiculous and draw away, but Trisha couldn't afford to let it. She could think like a kid again once she was out of the woods, but for the time being she had to think as much like an adult as possible.
You saw what's out there, she thought, a big valley with noth-45 ing in it except trees. No roads, no smoke. You have to play it smart.
You have to conserve your supplies. Mom would tell you the same thing and so would Dad.
She allowed herself three big gulps of soda, took the bot-tle away from her mouth, belched, took another two fast swallows. Then she recapped the bottle securely and debated over the rest of her supplies.
She decided on the egg. She shelled it, careful to put the pieces of shell back in the Baggie the egg had come in (it never occurred to her, then or later, that littering—any sign that she'd been there—might actually save her life), and sprinkled it with the little twist of salt. Doing that made her sob briefly again, because she could see herself in the Sanford kitchen last night, putting salt on a scrap of waxed paper and then twisting it up the way her mother had shown her.
She could see the shadows of her head and hands, thrown by the overhead light, on the Formica counter; she could hear the sound of the TV news from the living room; could hear creaks as her brother moved around upstairs. This memory had a hallucinogenic clarity that elevated it almost to the status of a vision. She felt like someone who drowns remem-bering what it was like to still be on the boat, so calm and at ease, so carelessly safe.
She was nine, though, nine going on ten and big for her age. Hunger was stronger than either memory or fear. She sprinkled the egg with salt and ate it quickly, still sniffling.
It was delicious. She could have eaten another easily, maybe two. Mom called eggs “cholesterol bombs,” but her Mom wasn't here and cholesterol didn't seem like a very big deal when you were lost in the woods, scratched up and with your eyelids so swollen by bug-bites that they felt weighted down with something (flour-paste stuck to the lashes, perhaps).
Trisha eyed the Twinkies, then opened the package and ate one of them. “SECK-shoo-al,” she said—one of Pepsi's all-timegreat compliments. She chased everything with a gulp of water. Then, moving quickly before either hand could turn traitor and stuff something else into her mouth, she put the remaining food back in the lunch-sack (the top rolled down quite a bit further now), rechecked the seal on her three-quarter-full bottle of Surge, and stowed everything in the pack. As she did, her fingers brushed a bulge in the pack's sidewall and a sudden burst of elation—perhaps par-tially fueled by fresh calories—lit her up.
Her Walkman! She had brought her Walkman! Yeah, baby!
She unzipped the inner pocket and lifted it out as rever-ently as any priest has ever handled the eucharist. The head-phone wire was wrapped around the body of the Walkman and the tiny earbuds were clipped neatly to the sides of its black plastic body. Her and Pepsi's current favorite tape (Tubthumper, by Chumbawamba) was in there, but Trisha didn't care about music just then. She slipped the head-phones on, nestled the earbuds into place, flipped the switch from TAPE to RADIO, and turned it on.
At first there was nothing but a soft rush of static, because she had been tuned to WMGX, a Portland station.
But a little further down the FM band she came to WOXO in Norway, and when she tuned up the other way she got WCAS, the little station in Castle Rock, a town they had passed through on their way to the Appalachian Trail. She could almost hear her brother, his voice dripping with that newly discovered teenage sarcasm of his, saying something like “WCAS! Hicksville today, tomorrow the world!” And it was a Hicksville station, no doubt about that. Whiny cowboy singers like Mark Chestnutt and Trace Adkins alternated with a female announcer who took calls from people who wanted to sell washers, dryers, Buicks, and hunting rifles.
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-15; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 5; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ