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Still, it was human contact, voices in the wilderness, and Trisha sat on the fallen tree, transfixed, waving absently at the constant cloud of bugs with her cap. The first time-check she heard was three-oh-nine.
At three thirty, the female announcer put the Commu-nity Trading Post on hold long enough to read the local news. Folks in Castle Rock were up in arms about a bar where there were now topless dancers on Friday and Satur-day nights, there had been a fire at a local nursing home (no one hurt), and Castle Rock Speedway was supposed to re-open on the Fourth of July with brand-new stands and loads of fireworks. Rainy this afternoon, clearing tonight, sunny tomorrow with highs in the mid-eighties. That was it. No missing little girl. Trisha didn't know whether to be relieved or worried.
She reached to turn off the power and save the batteries, then paused as the female announcer added, “Don't forget that the Boston Red Sox take on those pesky New York Yankees tonight at seven o'clock; you can catch all the action right here on WCAS, where we've got our Sox on.
And now back to—”
Now back to the shittiest day a little girl ever had, Trisha thought, turning off the radio and wrapping the cord around the slim plastic body again. Yet the truth was that she felt almost all right for the first time since that nasty minnow had started swimming around in her midsection.
Having something to eat was partially the reason, but she suspected that the radio had more to do with it. Voices, real human voices, and sounding so close.
There was a cluster of mosquitoes on each of her thighs, trying to drill through the material of her jeans. Thank God she hadn't worn shorts. She would have been chuck steak by now.
She swatted the mosquitoes away, then got up. What now? Did she know anything at all about being lost in the woods? Well, that the sun rose in the east and went down in the west; that was about all. Once someone had told her that moss grew on the north or south side of a tree, but she couldn't remember which. Maybe the best thing would be just to sit here, try to make some sort of shelter (more against the bugs than the rain, there were mosquitoes inside the hood of her poncho again and they were driving her crazy), and wait for someone to come. If she had matches, maybe she could make a fire—the rain would keep it from spreading—and someone would see the smoke. Of course, if pigs had wings, bacon would fly. Her father said that.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Wait a minute.”
Something about water. Finding your way out of the woods by water. Now what—?
It came to her, and she felt another burst of elation. This one was so strong that it made her feel almost giddy; she actually swayed a little on her feet, as one will at the sound of catchy music.
You found a stream. Her mother hadn't told her that, she had read it in one of the Little House books a long time ago, maybe way back when she'd been seven. You found a stream and followed it and sooner or later it would either lead you out or to a bigger stream. If it was a bigger stream, you followed it until it led you out or to a bigger stream yet.
But in the end running water had to lead you out because it always ran to the sea, and there were no woods there, only the beach and rocks and the occasional lighthouse. And how would she find running water? Why, she would follow the bluff, of course. The one she had almost run off the edge of, stupidnik that she was. The bluff would lead her in one steady direction, and sooner or later she'd find a brook. The woods were full of em, as the saying went.
She reshouldered her pack (this time putting it on over the poncho) and walked carefully toward the bluff and the fallen ash tree. She now looked back on her panicky plunge through the woods with the mixture of indulgence and embarrassment adults feel when looking back upon the worst of their childhood behavior, but she found she could still not go very close to the edge. It would make her feel sick if she did. She might faint again... or vomit. Vomiting up any of her food when she had so little would be a very bad idea.
She turned to the left and began walking through the woods with the drop-off to the valley about twenty feet to her right. Every now and then she would force herself to go closer and make sure she wasn't drifting away—that the bluff with its wide view was still there. She listened for voices, but not very hopefully; the trail might be anywhere now, and to stumble on it would be pure dumb luck. What she was listening for was running water, and at last she heard it.
Won't do me any good if it goes over that stupid cliff in a water-fall, she thought, and decided she had to get close enough to the edge to check out the drop before she reached the stream. If only to guard against disappointment.
The trees had drawn back a little here, and the space between the edge of the forest and the edge of the drop was dotted with bushes. They would, four or five weeks later, bear a lush crop of blueberries. Now, however, the berries were just tiny buds, green and inedible. Still, there had been checkerberries; they were in season, and it might be a good idea to keep that in mind. Just in case.
The ground between the blueberry bushes was scaly and shifty with busted rock. The sound under Trisha's sneakers made her think of broken plates. She walked ever more slowly over this scree, and when she was ten feet or so from the edge of the drop, she got down and crawled. I'm safe, per-fectly safe because I know it's there, nothing to worry about, but her heart was still hammering in her chest. And when she got to the edge she uttered a bewildered little laugh because the drop was hardly there at all anymore.
The view across the valley was still wide and sweeping but wouldn't be for much longer, because the terrain on this side had been sinking—Trisha had been listening so hard and thinking so hard (mostly reminding herself to keep her head, not to go bazonka again) that she hadn't even real-ized.
She worked her way further, pushing through a final little screen of bushes, and looked down.
The drop was now only about twenty feet, and no longer sheer—the rock face had become a steep, rubbly slope.
Down below were scrubby trees, more fruitless blueberry bushes, tangles of brambles. And scattered everywhere were heaps of broken-up glacial rock. The downpour had stopped, the thunder had retreated to the occasional ill-natured mutter, but it had continued to drizzle and these heaps of rock had a slick, unpleasant look, like slag from a mine.
Trisha backed up and got to her feet, then continued to make her way through the bushes toward the sound of run-ning water. She was starting to feel tired now, her legs aching, but she thought she was basically okay. Afraid, of course, but not so badly as before. They would find her.
When people got lost in the woods they always found them.
They sent out planes and helicopters and guys with blood-hounds and they hunted until the lost person was found.
Or maybe I'll kind of save myself. Find a camp in the woods somewhere, break a window if the door's locked and there's no one home, use the telephone...
Trisha could see herself in some hunter's cabin which hadn't been used since the previous fall; she could see camp furniture covered with faded paisley dropcloths and a bearskin rug on the board floor. She could smell dust and old stove ashes; this daydream was so clear she could even smell a trace of ancient coffee. The place was empty but the telephone worked. It was one of the oldfashioned ones, the handset so heavy that she had to hold it in both hands, but it worked and she could hear herself saying: “Hello, Mom? This is Trisha. I don't know exactly where I am, but I'm all r—”
She was so absorbed in the imaginary cabin and the imaginary phone call that she came close to falling into a small stream that emerged from the woods and cascaded down the rubble-strewn slope.
Trisha grabbed at the branches of an alder and stood looking at the stream, actually smiling a little. It had been a crappy day, all right, tres crappy, but her luck finally seemed to be turning and that was a big hooray. She walked to the edge of the slope. The stream spilled down it in a foamy rush, here and there striking a bigger rock and kicking up spray that would have held rainbows on a sunny afternoon.
The slope on both sides of the water looked slippery and unreliable—all that loose wet rock. Still, it was also dotted with bushes. If she started to slide, she would grab one of those as she'd grabbed the alder at the edge of the stream.
“Water leads to people,” she said, and started down the slope.
She descended sideways, in little hops, on the right side of the stream. At first she was all right even though the angle of the slope was steeper than it had looked from up above and the broken ground shifted under her sneakers every time she moved. Her pack, of which she had hardly been aware up until now, began to feel like a large, unstable baby in one of those papoose carriers; every time it shifted she had to wave her arms to keep her balance. She was all right, though, and a darn good thing, because when she paused halfway down the slope, her propping right foot actually buried in loose rock below her, she realized she couldn't climb back up anymore. One way or the other, she was bound for the valley floor.
She got moving again. Three quarters of the way down, a bug—a big one, not a minge or a mosquito—flew into her face. It was a wasp, and Trisha batted at it with a cry. Her pack shifted violently to her downhill side, her right foot slipped, and suddenly her balance was gone. She fell, hit the rock slope on her shoulder with a tooth-rattling thud, and began to slide.
“Oh shit on toast!” she cried, and grabbed at the ground.
All she got was a strew of loose rock that slid along with her and a sharp jab of pain as a broken chunk of quartz cut her palm. She snatched at a bush and it came out by its stupid shallow roots. Her foot struck something, her right leg bent at a painful angle, and she was suddenly airborne, the world revolving as she did an unplanned somersault.
Trisha came down on her back and slid that way, legs spread, arms waving, screaming in pain and terror and sur-prise.
Her poncho and the back of her shirt pulled up to her shoulderblades; sharp pieces of rock tore snatches of skin from between them. She tried to brake with her feet. The left one struck a jutting outcrop of shale and turned her to the right. That put her into a roll—first on her stomach and then onto her back and then onto her stomach again, the pack digging into her, then pitching upward each time she went over. The sky was down, the hateful broken scree of the slope was up, and then they swapped places—swing your partner with a dosey-do, everybody change.
Trisha went the final ten yards on her left side with her left arm stretched out and her face buried against the fold of her elbow. She thumped against something hard enough to bruise her ribs on that side... and then, before she could even look up from her arm, a needle of pain drove into her just above her left cheekbone. Trisha shrieked and jerked to her knees, slapping. She crushed something—another wasp, of course, what else—even as it stung her again, even as she opened her eyes and saw them all around her: yellow-brown insects that looked weighted down in the tailsection, plump ungainly poison factories.
She had slid into a dead tree standing at the foot of the slope about twenty-five feet from the brawling streamlet. In the dead tree's lowest fork, just at eye-level to a little girl who was nine but tall for her age, was a gray paper nest.
Agitated wasps were crawling all over it; more were flying out of a hole in the top.
Pain needled the right side of Trisha's neck, just below the bill of her cap. Another sting lit up her right arm above the elbow. Screaming, in a total panic, she bolted. Something stung the back of her neck; something stung the small of her back, above the waistband of her bluejeans, where her shirt was still pulled up and the plastic poncho hung in tatters.
She ran in the direction of the stream without any thought or plan or intent; it was just that the ground there was rela-tively open. She wove her way around the clumps of bushes, and when the underbrush began to thicken she bulled through it. At the stream she stopped, gasping for breath, looking tearfully (and fearfully) back over her shoulder. The wasps were gone, but they had done plenty of damage before she had managed to outrun them. Her left eye, close to where the first one had gotten her, was swelled almost shut.
If I get a bad reaction, I'll die, she thought, but in the after-math of her panic she didn't care. She sat down by the little stream which had gotten her into all this trouble, sobbing and sniffling. When she felt a little bit in control of herself again, she took off her pack. Tight, fierce shudders wracked her, each one making her body harden up like a spring and pulling red-hot darts of pain from the places where she had been stung. She put her arms around her pack, rocked it like a doll, and cried harder. Holding the pack that way made her think of Mona lying in the back seat of the Cara-van, good old Moanie Balogna with her big blue eyes. There had been times, while her parents were getting ready to divorce and then actually doing it, when Mona had felt like her only comfort; there were times when not even Pepsi could understand. Now her parents' divorce seemed like very small beans. There were bigger problems than grownups who couldn't get along, there were wasps, for one thing, and Trisha thought she would give anything to see Mona again.
At least she wasn't going to die from the stings, or she'd probably be dying already. She had overheard her Mom and Mrs. Thomas from across the street talking about someone who was allergic to stings, and Mrs. Thomas had said, “Ten seconds after it gut im, poor ole Frank was swole up like a balloon. If he hadn't had his little kit with the hyperdermic, I guess he woulda choked to death.”
Trisha didn't feel choky, but the bites throbbed horribly, and they had swole up like balloons, all right. The one by her eye had built a hot little volcano of tissue that she could actually look at, and when she probed gingerly with her fin-gers, a bolt of pain shot into her head and made her cry out in misery. She was no longer exactly weeping, but that eye ran helplessly with tears just the same.
Moving her hands slowly and carefully, Trisha examined herself. She isolated at least half a dozen stings (she thought there was one location, on her left side just above the hip, where she might have sustained two or even three—it was the sorest place of all). Her back felt all scraped up and her left arm, which had absorbed most of the damage during the final part of her slide, was a net of blood from wrist to elbow. The side of her face where the stump of branch had poked her was bleeding again, too.
Not fair, she thought. Not f— Then a terrible idea occurred to her... except it was more than an idea, it was a certainty. Her Walkman was broken, shattered to a million pieces in its little side pocket.
Had to be. There was no way it could have survived the slide.
Trisha tugged the pack's buckles with bloodstreaked trembling fingers and at last worked the straps free. She pulled out her Gameboy and that was smashed, all right, nothing left of the window where the little electronic blips had gamboled but a few shards of yellow glass. Also, her bag of potato chips had burst open and the Gameboy's cracked white housing was covered with greasy crumbs.
Both plastic bottles, the one with the water in it and the bottle of Surge, were dented but whole. Her lunch-sack was smooshed into something that looked like roadkill (and covered with more potato chips), but Trisha didn't even bother looking inside. My Walkman, she thought, unaware that she was sobbing as she unzipped the inner pocket. My poor poor Walkman. To be separated from even the voices of the human world seemed more than she could bear on top of everything else.
Trisha reached into the pocket and pulled out a miracle: the Walkman, intact. The earphone cord, which she had rewrapped neatly around the little gadget's body, had come loose in a tangle, but that was all. She held the Walkman in her hand, looking incredulously from it to the Gameboy lying beside her. How could one be whole and the other so badly shattered? How was that possible?
It's not, the cold and hateful voice in her head informed her. It looks all right but it's broken inside.
Trisha straightened the cord, slipped the earbuds into place, and settled her finger on the power button. She had forgotten the stings, the insect bites, the cuts and scrapes.
She closed her swollen, heavy eyelids, making a little dark.
“Please, God,” she said into it, “don't let my Walkman be broken.” Then she pushed the power button.
“This just in,” said the female announcer—she might have been broadcasting from the middle of Trisha's head. “A Sanford woman hiking a Castle County section of the Appa-lachian Trail with her two children has reported her daughter, nine-year-old Patricia McFarland, missing and presumably lost in the woods west of TR-90 and the town of Motton.”
Trisha's eyes flew wide open and she listened for the next ten minutes, long after WCAS had reverted, like someone with unbreakable bad habits, to country music and NASCAR reports. She was lost in the woods. It was official.
Soon they would swing into action, whoever they were—the people, she supposed, who kept the helicopters ready to fly and the bloodhounds ready to sniff. Her mother would be scared to death... and yet Trisha felt a small strange trickle of satisfaction when she considered that likelihood.
I wasn't supervised, she thought—not without self-right-eousness.
I'm just a little kid and I wasn't properly supervised.
Also if she gives me hell I'll just say “You wouldn't stop arguing and finally I couldn't stand it anymore.” Pepsi would like that; it was just so V. C. Andrews.
At last she turned the Walkman off, rewrapped the head-phone wire, gave the black plastic case a perfectly unself-conscious smooch, and tucked it lovingly back into its pocket. She eyed the mashed-up lunchbag and decided she couldn't bring herself to look inside and see what shape the tuna sandwich and the remaining Twinkie might be in. Too depressing. A good thing she'd eaten her egg before it could turn into egg salad. That thought probably deserved a gig-gle, but there were apparently no giggles in her; the old giggle-well, which her mother believed inexhaustible, seemed to have temporarily gone dry.
Trisha sat on the bank of the little stream, which was less than three feet across here, and disconsolately ate potato chips, first out of the burst chip-bag and then plucking them off her lunch-sack and finally dredging the smallest fragments out of the bottom of her pack. A big bug droned past her nose and she cringed from it, crying out and raising a hand to protect her face, but it was only a horsefly.
At last, moving as wearily as a woman of sixty after a hard day's work (she felt like a woman of sixty after a hard day's work), Trisha replaced everything in her pack—even the shattered Gameboy went back in—and stood up.
Before rebuckling the flap, she took off her poncho and held it up in front of her. The flimsy thing hadn't been any pro-tection in her slide down the slope, and now it was torn and flapping in a way she would have considered comic under other circumstances—it looked almost like a blue plastic hula skirt—but she supposed she'd better keep it. If noth-ing else, it might protect her from the bugs, which had reformed their cloud around her hapless head. The mosqui-toes were thicker than ever, no doubt drawn by the blood on her arms. They probably smelled it.
“Yug,” Trisha said, wrinkling her nose and waving her cap at the cloud of bugs, “how gross is that?” She tried to tell herself she ought to be grateful she hadn't broken her arm or fractured her skull, also grateful that she wasn't allergic to stings like Mrs. Thomas's friend Frank, but it was hard to be grateful when you were scared, scratched, swollen, and generally banged up.
She was putting the rags of her poncho back on—the pack would come next—when she looked at the stream and noticed how muddy the banks were just above the water.
She dropped to one knee, wincing as the waist of her jeans chafed against the wasp-stings above her hip, and took up a fingerful of pasty brown-gray gluck. Try it or not?
“Well, what can it hurt?” she asked with a little sigh, and dabbed the mud on the swelling above her hip. It was bless-edly cool, and the itchy pain diminished almost at once.
Working carefully, she dabbed mud on as many of the stings as she could reach, including the one which had puffed up beside her eye. Then she wiped her hands on her jeans (both hands and jeans considerably more battered now than they had been six hours ago), donned her torn poncho, then shrugged into her pack. Luckily, it lay without rubbing against any of the places where she'd been stung. Trisha began walking beside the stream again, and five minutes later she re-entered the woods.
She followed the stream for the next four hours or so, hearing nothing but twitting birds and the ceaseless drone of bugs. It drizzled for most of that time, and once it show-ered hard enough to wet her through again even though she took shelter under the biggest tree she could find. At least there was no thunder and lightning with the second down-pour.
Trisha had never felt as much like a town girl as she did while that miserable, terrifying day was winding down toward dark. The woods came in clenches, it seemed to her.
For awhile she would walk through great old stands of pine, and there the forest seemed almost all right, like the woods in a Disney cartoon. Then one of those clenches would come and she would find herself struggling through snarly clumps of scrubby trees and thick bushes (all too many of the latter the kind with thorns), fighting past interlaced branches that clawed for her arms and eyes. Their only pur-pose seemed to be obstruction, and as mere tiredness slipped toward exhaustion, Trisha began to impute them with actual intelligence, a sly and hurtful awareness of the outsider in the ragged blue poncho. It began to seem to her that their desire to scratch her—to perhaps even get lucky and poke out one of her eyes—was actually secondary; what the bushes really wanted was to shunt her away from the brook, her path to other people, her ticket out.
Trisha was willing to leave sight of the brook if the clenches of trees and tangles of bushes near it got too thick, but she refused to leave the sound of it. If the brook's low babble got too thin, she'd drop to her hands and knees and crawl under the worst of the branches rather than sliding along them and looking for a hole. Crawling over the squelchy ground was the worst part (in the pine groves the ground was dry and nicely carpeted with needles; in the clenchy tangles it always seemed wet). Her pack dragged through the lacings of branches and bushes, sometimes actually getting stuck... and all the time, no matter how thick the going, the cloud of minges and noseeums hung and danced in front of her face.
She understood what made all of this so bad, so dispirit-ing, but could not articulate it. It had something to do with all the things she couldn't name. Some stuff she knew because her mother had told her: the birches, the beeches, the alders, the spruces and pines; the hollow hammering of a woodpecker and the harsh cawing cry of the crows; the creaky-door sound of the crickets as the day began to darken... but what was everything else? If her mother had told her, Trisha no longer remembered, but she didn't think her mother had told her in the first place. She thought her mother was really just a town girl from Massachusetts who had lived in Maine for awhile, liked to walk in the woods, and had read a few nature guides. What, for instance, were the thick bushes with the shiny green leaves (please God, not poison oak)? Or the small, trashy-looking trees with the dusty-gray trunks? Or the ones with the narrow hanging leaves? The woods around Sanford, the woods her mother knew and walked—sometimes with Trisha and sometimes alone—were toy woods. These were not toy woods.
Trisha tried to imagine hundreds of searchers flooding toward her. Her imagination was good, and at first she was able to do this quite easily. She saw big yellow schoolbuses with the words CHARTER SEARCH PARTY in the destination windows pulling into parking areas all along the western Maine part of the Appalachian Trail. The doors opened and out spilled men in brown uniforms, some with dogs on chains, all with walkie-talkies clipped to their belts, a special few with those battery-powered loudhailers; these would be what she heard first, big amplified God-voices calling “PATRICIA McFARLAND, WHERE ARE YOU? IF YOU HEAR, COME TO THE SOUND OF MY VOICE!”
But as the shadows in the woods thickened and joined hands, there was only the sound of the stream—no wider and no smaller than when she had tumbled down the slope beside it—and the sound of her own breathing. Her mental pictures of the men in the brown uniforms weakened, little by little.
I can't stay out here all night, she thought, no one can expect me to stay out here all night— She felt panic trying to grab her again—it was speeding her heartbeat, drying out her mouth, making her eyes throb in their sockets. She was lost in the woods, hemmed in by trees for which she had no name, alone in a place where her town-girl vocabulary had little use, and she was conse-quently left with just a narrow range of recognition and reaction, all of it primitive. From town girl to cave girl in one easy step.
She was afraid of the dark even when she was at home in her room, with the glow from the streetlight on the corner falling in through the window. She thought that if she had to spend the night out here, she would die of terror.
Part of her wanted to run. Never mind how flowing water was bound to take her to people eventually, all that was likely just a crock of Little House on the Prairie shit. She had been following this stream for miles now, and all it had brought her to was more bugs. She wanted to run away from it, run in whatever direction the going was easiest.
Run and find people before it got dark. That the idea was totally nutso didn't help much. It certainly didn't change the throb in her eyes (and the stung places, now they were throbbing, too) or ease the coppery fear-taste in her mouth.
Trisha fought her way through a tangle of trees growing so close together they were almost intertwined and came out in a little crescent of clearing where the brook took an elbow-bend to the left. This crescent, hemmed in on all sides by bushes and raggedy clumps of trees, looked like a little patch of Eden to Trisha. There was even a fallen tree-trunk for a bench.
She went to it, sat down, closed her eyes, and tried to pray for rescue. Asking God to not let her Walkman be bro-ken had been easy because it had been unthinking. Now, however, praying was hard. Neither of her parents were churchgoers—her Mom was a lapsed Catholic, and her Dad, so far as Trisha knew, had never had anything to lapse from—and now she discovered herself lost and without vocabulary in another way. She said the Our Father and it came out of her mouth sounding flat and uncomforting, about as useful as an electric can-opener would have been out here. She opened her eyes and looked around the little clearing, seeing all too well how gray the air was becoming, clasping her scratched hands nervously together.
She couldn't remember ever discussing spiritual matters with her mother, but she had asked her father not a month ago if he believed in God. They had been out behind his lit-tle place in Malden, eating ice cream cones from the Sunny Treat man, who still came by in his tinkling white truck (thinking of the Sunny Treat truck now made Trisha feel like crying again). Pete had been “down the park,” as they said in Malden, goofing with his old friends.
“God,” Dad had said, seeming to taste the word like some new ice cream flavor—Vanilla with God instead of Vanilla with Jimmies. “What brought that on, sugar?”
She shook her head, not knowing. Now, sitting on the fallen trunk in this cloudy, buggy June dusk, a frightening idea bloomed: what if she had asked because some deep future-seeing part of her had known that this was going to happen? Had known, had decided she was going to need a little God to get through, and had sent up a flare?
“God,” Larry McFarland had said, licking his ice cream.
“God, now, God...” He thought awhile longer. Trisha had sat quietly on her side of the picnic table, looking out at his little yard (it needed mowing), giving him all the time he needed. At last he said, “I'll tell you what I believe in. I believe in the Subaudible.”
“The what?” She had looked at him, not sure if he was joking or not. He didn't look as if he was joking.
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-15; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 6; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ