, 5


Trisha bent over the stream to splash her throbbing face, saw her reflection, and moaned. The wasp-sting above her left cheekbone had swelled some more (perhaps she had scratched it or bumped it in her sleep), bursting through the mud she had smeared on it like a newly awakened volcano bursting through the old caked lava of its last eruption. It had mashed her eye out of shape, making it all crooked and freakish, the sort of eye that made you glance away if you saw it floating toward youusually in the face of a men-tally retarded personon the street. The rest of her face was as bad or even worse: lumpy where she had been stung, merely swollen where mosquitoes in their hundreds had had at her while she was sleeping. The water by the bank where she crouched was relatively still, and in it she saw there was at least one mosquito still on her. It clung to the corner of her right eye, too logy to even pull its proboscis from her flesh. Another of those grownup sayings occurred to her: too stuffed to jump.

She struck at it and it burst, filling her eye with her own blood, making it sting. Trisha managed not to scream, but a wavery sound of revulsionmmmmmmhhescaped her tightly pressed lips. She looked unbelievingly at the blood on her fingers. That one mosquito could hold so much! No one would believe it!

She dipped her cupped hands into the water and washed her face. She didn't drink any, vaguely remembering some-one saying that woods-water could make you sick, but the feel of it on her hot and lumpy skin was wonderfullike cold satin. She dipped up more, wetting her neck and soak-ing her arms to the elbow. Then she scooped up mud and began to apply itnot just on the bites this time but all over, from the round collar of her 36 GORDON shirt right up to the roots of her hair. As she did it she thought of an I Love Lucy episode she'd seen on Nick at Nite, Lucy and Ethel at the beauty parlor, both of them wearing these funky 1958 mudpacks, and Desi had come in and looked from one woman to the other and he had said, Hey Loocy, jwich one are jew? and the audience had howled. She probably looked like that, but Trisha didn't care. There was no audi-ence out here, no laugh-track, either, and she couldn't stand to be bitten anymore. It would drive her crazy if she was.

She applied mud for five minutes, finishing with a couple of careful dabs to the eyelids, then bent over to look at her reflection. What she saw in the relatively still water by the bank was a minstrel-show mudgirl by moonlight. Her face was a pasty gray, like a face on a vase pulled out of some archeological dig. Above it her hair stood up in a filthy spout. Her eyes were white and wet and frightened. She didn't look funny, like Lucy and Ethel getting their beauty treatments. She looked dead. Dead and badly inbarned, or whatever they called it.

Speaking to the face in the water, Trisha intoned: Then Little Black Sambo said, 'Please, tigers, do not take my fine new clothes. '

But that wasn't funny, either. She smeared mud up her lumpy, itchy arms, then lowered her hands toward the water, meaning to wash them off. But that was stupid. The gosh-damn old bugs would just bite her there.

The pins and needles had mostly worked out of her arm and leg; Trisha was able to squat and pee without falling over. She was also able to stand up and walk, although she grimaced with pain each time she moved her head more than a little to the right or left. She supposed she had a kind of whiplash injury, like the one Mrs. Chetwynd from up the block had gotten when some old man had rammed her car from behind as she waited for a traffic light to change. The old man hadn't been hurt a bit, but poor Mrs. Chetwynd had been in a neck brace for six weeks. Maybe they would put her in a neck brace when she got out of this. Maybe they would take her to a hospital in a helicopter with a red cross on the belly like in M*A*S*H, and Forget it, Trisha. It was the scary cold voice. No neck brace for you. No helicopter ride, either.

Shut up, she muttered, but the voice wouldn't.

You won't even get inbarned because they're never going to find you. You'll die out here, just wander around in these woods until you die, and the animals will come and eat your rotting body and some day some hunter will come along and find your bones.

There was something so terribly plausible about this lastshe had heard similar stories on the TV news not just once but several times, it seemedthat she began to cry again. She could actually see the hunter, a man in a bright red woolen jacket and an orange cap, a man who needed a shave. Looking for a place to lie up and wait for a deer or maybe just wanting to take a leak. He sees something white and thinks at first, Just a stone, but as he gets closer he sees that the stone has eyesockets.

Stop it, she whispered, walking back to the fallen tree and the wrinkled spread remains of the poncho under it (she hated the poncho now; she didn't know why, but it seemed to symbolize everything that had gone wrong). Stop it, please.

The cold voice would not. The cold voice had one more thing to say. One more thing, at least.

Or maybe you won't just die. Maybe the thing out there will kill you and eat you.

Trisha stopped by the fallen treeone hand reached out and grasped the dead jut of a small branchand looked around nervously. From the moment of waking all she'd really been able to think about was how badly she itched.

The mud had now soothed the worst of the itching and the residual throb of the wasp-stings, and she again realized where she was: in the woods alone and at night.

At least there's a moon, she said, standing by the tree and looking nervously around her little crescent of clearing.

It looked even smaller now, as if the trees and underbrush had crept in closer while she was sleeping. Crept in slyly.

The moonlight wasn't as good a thing as she'd thought, either. It was bright in the clearing, true, but it was a decep-tive brightness that made everything look simultaneously too real and not real at all. Shadows were too black, and when a breeze stirred the trees, the shadows changed in a disquieting way.

Something twitted in the woods, seemed to choke, twit-ted again, and was silent.

An owl hooted, far off.

Closer to, a branch snapped.

What was that? Trisha thought, turning toward the snap-ping sound. Her heartbeat began to ramp up from a walk to a jog to a run. In another few seconds it would be sprint-ing and then she might be sprinting as well, panicked all over again and running like a deer in front of a forest fire.

Nothing, it was nothing, she said. Her voice was low and rapid... very much her mother's voice, although she did not know this. Nor did she know that in a motel room thirty miles from where Trisha stood by the fallen tree, her mother had sat up out of a troubled sleep, still half-dreaming with her eyes open, sure that something awful had happened to her lost daughter, or was about to happen.

It's the thing you hear, Trisha, said the cold voice. Its tone was sad on top, unspeakably gleeful underneath. It's coming for you. It's got your scent.

There is no thing, Trisha said in a desperate, whispery voice that broke into complete silence each time it wavered upward. Come on, give me a break, there is no thing.

The unreliable moonlight had changed the shapes of the trees, had turned them into bone faces with black eyes. The sound of two branches rubbing together became the clotted croon of a monster. Trisha turned in a clumsy circle, trying to look everywhere at once, her eyes rolling in her muddy face.

It's a special thing, Trishathe thing that waits for the lost ones. It lets them wander until they're good and scaredbecause fear makes them taste better, it sweetens the fleshand then it comes for them. You'll see it. It'll come out of the trees any minute now. A matter of seconds, really. And when you see its face you'll go insane.

If there was anyone to hear you, they'd think you were screaming.

But you'll be laughing, won't you? Because that's what insane people do when their lives are ending, they laugh... and they laugh... and they laugh.

Stop it, there is no thing, there is no thing in the woods, you stop it!

She whispered this very fast, and the hand holding the nub of dead branch clutched it tighter and tighter until it broke with a loud report like a starter's gun. The sound made her jump and utter a little scream, but it also steadied her. She knew what it was, after alljust a branch, and one she had broken. She could still break branches, she still had that much control over the world. Sounds were just sounds.

Shadows were just shadows. She could be afraid, she could listen to that stupid traitor of a voice if she wanted to, but there was no (thing special thing) in the woods. There was wildlife, and there was undoubt-edly a spot of the old kill-or-be-killed going on out there at this very second, but there was no crea There is.

And there was.

Now, stopping all of her thoughts and holding her breath without realizing it, Trisha knew with a simple cold cer-tainty that there was. There was something. Inside her there were at that moment no voices, only a part of her she didn't understand, a special set of eclipsed nerves that perhaps slept in the world of houses and phones and electric lights and came fully alive only out here in the woods. That part didn't see and couldn't think, but it could feel. Now it felt something in the woods.

Hello? she called toward the moonlight-and-bone faces of the trees. Hello, is someone there?

In the Castle View motel room Quilla had asked him to share with her, Larry McFarland sat in his pajamas on the edge of one of the twin beds with his arm around his ex-wife's shoulders. Although she wore only the thinnest of cotton nightgowns and he was pretty sure she had nothing on beneath it, and further although he had not had a sexual relationship with anything but his own left hand in well over a year, he felt no lust (no immediate lust, anyway). She was trembling all over. It felt to him as though every muscle in her back were turned inside-out.

It's nothing, he said. Just a dream. A nightmare you woke up with and turned into this feeling.

No, Quilla said, shaking her head so violently that her hair whipped lightly against his cheek. She's in danger, I feel it. Terrible danger. And she began to cry.

Trisha did not cry, not then. At that moment she was too scared to cry. Something watching her. Something.

Hello? she tried again. No response... but it was there and it was on the move now, just beyond the trees at the back of the clearing, moving from left to right. And as her eyes shifted, following nothing but moonlight and a feeling, she heard a branch crack where she was looking. There was a soft exhalation... or was there? Was that perhaps only a stir of wind?

You know better, the cold voice whispered, and of course she did.

Don't hurt me, Trisha said, and now the tears came.

Whatever you are, please don't hurt me. I won't try to hurt you, please don't hurt me. I... I'm just a kid.

The strength ran out of her legs and Trisha did not so much fall down as fold up. Still crying and shivering all over with terror, she burrowed back under the fallen tree like the small and defenseless animal that she had become. She con-tinued begging not to be hurt almost without realizing it.

She grabbed her pack and pulled it in front of her face like a shield. Big shuddery spasms wracked her body, and when another branch cracked, closer, she screamed. It wasn't in the clearing, not yet, but almost. Almost.

Was it in the trees? Moving through the interlaced branches of the trees? Something with wings, like a bat?

She peered out between the top of the pack and the curve of the sheltering tree. She saw only tangled branches against the moon-bright sky. There was no creature among them at least not that her eyes could pick outbut now the woods had fallen completely silent. No birds called, no bugs hummed in the grass.

It was very close, whatever it was, and it was deciding.

Either it would come and tear her apart, or it would move on. It wasn't a joke and it wasn't a dream. It was death and madness standing or crouching or perhaps perching just beyond the edge of the clearing. It was deciding whether to take her now... or to let her ripen a little while longer.

Trisha lay clutching the pack and holding her breath.

After an eternity, another branch cracked, this one a little further off. Whatever it was, it was moving away.

Trisha closed her eyes. Tears slipped out from beneath her mudcaked lids and ran down her equally muddy cheeks.

The corners of her mouth quivered up and down. She wished briefly that she was deadbetter to be dead than have to endure such fear, better to be dead than to be lost.

Further off, another branch cracked. Leaves shook in a brief windless gust, and that was further off still. It was going, but it knew she was here now, in its woods. It would be back. Meanwhile, the night stretched out ahead of her like a thousand miles of empty road.

I'll never get to sleep. Never.

Her mother told her to pretend something when Trisha couldn't sleep. Imagine something nice. That's the best thing you can do when the sandman's late, Trisha.

Imagine that she was saved? No, that would only make her feel worse... like imagining a big glass of water when you were thirsty.

She was thirsty, she realized... dry as a bone. She guessed that was what got left over when the worst of your fear departedthat thirst. She turned her pack around with some effort and worked the buckles loose. It would have been easier if she'd been sitting up, but there was no way in the world she was coming out from under this tree again tonight, no way in the universe.

Unless it comes back, the cold voice said. Unless it comes back and drags you out.

She grabbed her bottle of water, had several big gulps, recapped it, restowed it. With that done, she looked long-ingly at the zippered pocket with her Walkman inside. She badly wanted to take it out and listen for a little while, but she should save the batteries.

Trisha rebuckled the pack's flap before she could weaken, then wrapped her arms around it again. Now that she wasn't thirsty anymore, what should she imagine? And she knew, just like that. She imagined Tom Gordon was in the clearing with her, that he was standing right over there by the stream.

Tom Gordon in his home uniform; it was so white it almost glowed in the moonlight. Not really guarding her because he was just pretend... but sort of guarding her. Why not? It was her make-believe, after all.

What was that in the woods? she asked him.

Don't know, Tom replied. He sounded indifferent. Of course he could afford to sound indifferent, couldn't he? The real Tom Gordon was two hundred miles away in Boston, and by now probably asleep behind a locked door.

How do you do it? she asked, sleepy again now, so sleepy she wasn't aware that she was speaking out loud.

What's the secret?

Secret of what?

Of closing, Trisha said, her eyes closing.

She thought he would say believing in Goddidn't he point to the sky every time he was successful, after all?or believing in himself, or maybe trying your best (that was the motto of Trisha's soccer coach: Try your best, forget the rest), but Number 36 said none of those things as he stood by the little stream.

You have to try to get ahead of the first hitter, was what he said.

You have to challenge him with that first pitch, throw a strike he can't hit. He comes to the plate thinking, I'm better than this guy.

You have to take that idea away from him, and it's best not to wait.

It's best to do it right away. Establishing that it's you who's better, that's the secret of closing.

What do you... like to throw on the first pitch was the rest of the question she meant to ask, but before she could get all of it out, she was asleep. In Castle View her parents were also asleep, this time in the same narrow bed following a bout of sudden, satisfying, and totally unplanned sex. If you had ever told me was Quilla's last waking thought. I never in a million years would have was Larry's.

Of the entire family, it was Pete McFarland who slept the most uneasily in the small hours of that late spring morning; he was in the room adjoining his parents', groaning and pulling the bedclothes into a tangle as he turned restlessly from side to side. In his dreams he and his mother were argu-ing, walking down the trail and arguing, and at some point he turned around in disgust (or perhaps so she wouldn't have the satisfaction of seeing that he had begun to cry a little), and Trisha was gone. At this point his dream stuttered; it caught in his mind like a bone in a throat. He twisted back and forth in his bed, trying to dislodge it. The latening moon peered in at him, making the sweat on his forehead and temples gleam.

He turned and she was gone. Turned and she was gone.

Turned and she was gone. There was only the empty path.

No, Pete muttered in his sleep, shaking his head from side to side, trying to unstick the dream, to cough it loose before it choked him. He could not. He turned and she was gone. Behind him there was only the empty path.

It was as if he had never had a sister at all.



Fifth Inning


WHEN TRISHA woke the next morning her neck hurt so badly she could hardly turn her head, but she didn't care.

The sun was up, filling the crescent-shaped clearing with early daylight. That was what she cared about. She felt reborn. She remembered waking in the night, being itchy and needing to urinate; she remembered going to the stream and putting mud on her stings and bites by moon-light; she remembered going to sleep while Tom Gordon was standing watch and explaining some of the secrets of his closer's role to her. She also remembered being terribly frightened of something in the woods, but of course nothing had been there watching; it was being alone in the dark that had frightened her, that was all.

Something deep in her mind tried to protest this, but Trisha wouldn't let it. The night was over. She wanted to look back on it no more than she wanted to go back to that rocky slope and repeat her roll down to the tree with the wasps' nest in it. It was daytime now. There would be search-parties galore and she would be saved. She knew it.

93. She deserved to be saved, after spending all night alone in the woods.

She crawled out from under the tree, pushing her pack before her, got to her feet, put on her hat, and hobbled back to the stream. She washed the mud from her face and hands, looked at the cloud of minges and noseeums already re-forming around her head, and reluctantly smeared on a fresh coat of goo. As she did it she remembered one of the times she and Pepsi had played Beauty Parlor when they were little girls. They'd made such a mess of Mrs. Robichaud's makeup that Pepsi's Mom had actually screamed at them to get out of the house, not to bother washing up or trying to clean up but just to get out before she totally lost it and swatted them crosseyed. So out they had gone, all powder and rouge and eyeliner and green eyeshadow and Passion Plum lipstick, probably looking like the world's youngest stripteasers.

They had gone to Trisha's house, where Quilla had first gaped, then laughed until tears rolled down her face. She had taken each little girl by the hand and led them into the bath-room, where she had given them cold cream for cleaning up.

Spread upward gently, girls, Trisha murmured now.

When her face was done she rinsed her hands in the stream, ate the rest of her tuna sandwich, then half of the celery sticks. She rolled the lunchbag up with a distinct feeling of unease. Now the egg was gone, the tuna fish sandwich was gone, the chips were gone, and the Twinkies were gone. Her supplies were down to half a bottle of Surge (less, really), half a bottle of water, and a few celery sticks.

Doesn't matter, she said, tucking the empty lunchbag and the remaining celery sticks back in her pack. To this she added the tattered, dirty poncho. Doesn't matter because there's going to be search-parties galore through-94 out the store. One'll find me. I'll be having lunch in some diner by noon. Hamburger, fries, chocolate milk, apple pie a la mode. Her stomach rumbled at the thought.

Once Trisha had her things packed away, she coated her hands with mud, as well. The sun had found its way into the clearing nowthe day was bright, with the promise of heatand she was moving a little more easily. She stretched, jogged in place a little to get the old blood moving, and rolled her head from side to side until the worst of the stiffness in her neck was gone. She paused a moment longer, listening for voices, for dogs, possibly for the irregular whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades. There was nothing except for the wood-pecker, already hammering for his daily bread.

S'all right, there's plenty of time. It's June, you know. These are the longest days of the year. Follow the stream. Even if the search-parties don't find you right away, the stream will take you to people.

But as the morning wore on toward noon, the stream took her only to woods and more woods. The temperature rose. Little trickles of sweat began to cut lines through her mudpack. Bigger patches formed dark circles around the armpits of her 36 GORDON shirt; another, this one in a tree-shape, began to grow between her shoulderblades. Her hair, now so muddy it looked dirty brunette instead of blonde, hung around her face. Trisha's feelings of hope began to dis-sipate, and the energy with which she had set out from the clearing at seven o'clock was gone by ten. Around eleven, something happened to darken her spirits even further.

She had reached the top of a slopethis one was fairly gentle, at least, and strewn with leaves and needlesand had stopped to have a little rest when that unwelcome sense of awareness, the one which had nothing at all to do with her conscious mind, brought her on alert again. She was being watched. There was no use telling herself it wasn't true because it was.

Trisha turned slowly in a circle. She saw nothing, but the woods seemed to have hushed againno more chipmunks bumbling and thrashing through the leaves and under-brush, no more squirrels on the far side of the stream, no more scolding jays. The woodpecker still hammered, the distant crows still cawed, but otherwise there was just her and the humming mosquitoes.

Who's there? she called.

There was no answer, of course, and Trisha started down the slope next to the stream, holding onto bushes because the going was slippery underfoot. Just my imagination, she thought... but she was pretty sure it wasn't.

The stream was getting narrower, and that was most cer-tainly not her imagination. As she followed it down the long piny slope and then through a difficult patch of deciduous treestoo much underbrush, and too much of it thorny it shrank steadily until it was a rill only eighteen inches or so across.

It disappeared into a thick clump of bushes. Trisha bulled her way through the close growth beside the stream instead of going around because she was afraid of losing it. Part of her knew that losing it would make no difference because it was almost certainly going nowhere she wanted to go, it was probably going nowhere at all, in fact, but those things seemed to make no difference. The truth was she had formed an emotional attachment to the streamhad bonded with it, her Mom would have saidand couldn't bear to leave it. Without it she would just be a kid wandering around in the deep woods with no plan. The very thought caused her throat to tighten and her heart to speed up.

She emerged from the bushes and the stream re-appeared.

Trisha followed it with her head down and a scowl on her face, as intent as Sherlock Holmes following prints left by the Hound of the Baskervilles. She didn't notice the change in the underbrush, from bushes to ferns, nor the fact that many of the trees through which the little stream now wove its way were dead, nor the way the ground under her feet had begun to soften. All of her attention was focused on the stream. She followed it with her head down, a study in concentration.

The stream began to spread again, and for fifteen minutes or so (this was around noon) she allowed herself to hope that it wasn't going to peter out after all. Then she realized it was also growing more shallow; it really wasn't much more than a series of puddles, most dulled with pond-scum and hop-ping with bugs. Ten minutes or so later her sneaker disap-peared through ground that wasn't solid at all but only a deceptive crust of moss over a soupy pocket of mud. It flowed over her ankle and Trisha drew her foot back with a little cry of disgust. The quick hard yank pulled her sneaker halfway off her foot. Trisha uttered another cry and held onto the trunk of a dead tree while she first wiped her foot with snatches of grass and then put her sneaker back on.

With that done she looked around and saw she had come to a kind of ghost-woods, the site of some old fire. Ahead (and already around her) was a broken maze of long-dead trees.

The ground in which they stood was swampy and wet. Ris-ing from flat pools of standing water were turtleback hum-mocks covered with grass and swatches of weeds. The air hummed with mosquitoes and danced with dragonflies.

Now there were more woodpeckers tackhammering away, dozens of them by the sound. So many dead trees, so little time.

Trisha's brook wandered away into this morass and was lost.

What do I do now, huh? she asked in a teary, tired voice. Will somebody please tell me that?

There were lots of places to sit and think about it; tum-bles of dead trees everywhere, many still bearing scorch-marks on their pallid bodies. The first one she tried, however, gave beneath her weight and sent her spilling to the mucky ground. Trisha cried out as dampness soaked through the seat of her jeansGod, she hated having her seat get wet like thatand lurched upright again. The tree had rotted through in the damp; the freshly broken ends squirmed with woodlice. Trisha looked at them for a moment or two in revolted fascination, then walked to a second downed tree. This one she tested first. It seemed solid and she sat on it warily, looking out at the bog of bro-ken trees, absently rubbing her sore neck and trying to decide what she should do.

Although her mind was less clear than it had been when she woke up, a lot less clear, there still seemed to be only two choices: stay put and hope rescue would come or keep mov-ing and try to meet it. She supposed that staying in one place made a certain amount of sense: conservation of energy and all that. Also, without the stream, what would she be going toward? Nothing sure, and that was for sure. She might be heading toward civilization; she might be heading away from civilization. She might even get walking in a circle.

On the other hand (There's always the other hand, sugar, her father had once told her), there was nothing to eat here, it stank of mud and rotting trees and who knew what other gross stuff here, it was ugly here, it was a bummer here. It came to Trisha that if she stayed here and no search-98 party came before dark, she would be spending the night here. It was an awful idea. The little crescent-shaped clear-ing had been Disneyland compared to this.

She stood and peered in the direction the stream had been tending before it petered out. She was looking through a maze of gray tree-trunks and lacings of dry jutting branches, but she thought she could see green beyond them. A rising green. Maybe a hill. And more checkerber-ries?

Hey, why not? She had already passed several more clumps of bushes loaded with them. She should have picked them and put them in her pack, but she had been concen-trating so hard on the stream that it just hadn't occurred to her to do so. Now, however, the stream was gone and she was hungry again. Not starving (not yet, at least), but hun-gry, sure.

Trisha took two steps forward, tested a patch of soft ground, and watched with profound misgivings as water promptly seeped up around the toe of her sneaker. Was she going in there, then? Simply because she thought she saw the other side?

There could be quicksand, she muttered.

That's right! the cold voice agreed at once. It sounded amused. Quicksand! Alligators! Not to mention little gray X-Files men with probes to stick up your butt!

Trisha gave back the pair of steps she had taken and sat down again. She was gnawing at her lower lip without real-izing it. She now hardly noticed the bugs swarming around her. Go or stay? Stay or go?

What got her going ten minutes or so later was blind hope... and the thought of berries. Hell, she was ready to try the leaves now, too. Trisha saw herself picking bright red berries on the slope of a pleasant green hill, looking like a girl in a schoolbook illustration (she had forgotten the mud-pack on her face and the snarled, dirty spout of her hair).

: 2015-09-15; : 4;

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