, 6


She saw herself picking her way to the crest of the hill, fill-ing her pack with checkerberries... finally reaching the top, looking down, seeing...

A road. I see a dirt road with fences on both sides... horses grazing... and a barn in the distance. A red one with white trim.

Crazy! Totally bazonka!

Or was it? What if she was sitting half an hour's walk from safety, still lost because she was afraid of a little goo?

Okay, she said, standing up again and nervously re-adjusting the straps of her pack. Okay, berries ho. But if it gets too gross, I'm going back. She gave the straps one final tug and started forward again, walking slowly over the increasingly wet ground, testing each step as she went, detouring around the skeletal standing trees and the fallen tangles of deadwood.

Eventuallyit might have been half an hour after start-ing forward again, it might have been forty-five minutes Trisha discovered what thousands (perhaps even millions) of men and women before her have discovered: by the time it gets too gross, it's often also too late to go back. She stepped from an oozy but stable patch of ground onto a hummock that wasn't a hummock at all but only a disguise. Her foot went into a cold, viscous substance that was too thick to be water and too thin to be mud. She tilted, grabbed a jutting dead branch, screamed in fright and vexation when it snapped off in her hand. She fell forward into long grass that hopped with bugs. She got a knee under her and yanked her foot back. It came with a loud sucking plop, but her sneaker stayed down there someplace.

No! she yelled, loud enough to scare a big white bird into flight. It exploded upward, trailing long legs behind it as it became airborne. In another place and time, Trisha would have stared at this exotic apparition with breathless wonder, but now the bird barely registered. She turned around on her knees, her right leg covered with shining black muck up to the knee, and plunged her arm into the water-welling hole which had temporarily swallowed her foot.

You can't have it! she shouted furiously. It's mine and you... can't... HAVE IT!

She felt around in the cold murk, fingers tearing through membranes of roots or dodging between those too thick to tear. Something that felt alive pressed briefly against her palm, and then was gone. A moment later her hand closed over her sneaker and she pulled it out. She looked at ita black mudshoe just right for an all-over-mudgirl, the very thing, the total puppy-shits, Pepsi would have saidand began to cry again. She lifted the sneaker up, tilted it, and a stream of grunge ran out of it. That made her laugh. For a minute or so she sat on the hummock with her legs crossed and the rescued sneaker in her lap, laughing and crying at the center of a black orbiting universe of bugs while the dead trees stood sentinel all around her and the crickets hummed.

At last her weeping tapered to sniffles, her laughter to choked and somehow humorless giggles. She tore handfuls of grass out of the hummock and wiped the outside of the sneaker as well as she could. Then she opened her pack, tore up the empty lunchbag, and used the pieces as towels to swab out the inside. These pieces she balled up and threw indifferently behind her. If someone wanted to arrest her for littering this butt-ugly, bad-smelling place, just let them.

She stood up, still holding the rescued sneaker in her hand, and looked ahead. Oh fuck, Trisha croaked.

It was the first time in her life she had said that particular word out loud. (Pepsi said it sometimes, but Pepsi was Pepsi.) She could now more clearly see the green she had mistaken for a hill. It was hummocks, that was all, just more hummocks. Between them was more standing, stag-nant water and more trees, most dead but some with fluffs of green at the top. She could hear frogs croaking. No hill.

From bog to swamp, bad to worse.

She turned and looked back but could no longer tell where she had entered this purgatorial zone. If she'd thought to mark the place with something brighta piece of her nasty old shredded poncho, sayshe might have gone back. But she hadn't, and that was that.

You can go back anywayyou know the general direction.

Maybe, but she wasn't going to follow the kind of think-ing that had gotten her into this mess in the first place.

Trisha turned toward the hummocks and the bleary glints of sun on scummy standing water. Plenty of trees to hold onto, and the swamp had to end somewhere, didn't it?

You're crazy to even think about it.

Sure. It was a crazy situation.

Trisha stood a moment longer, her thoughts now going to Tom Gordon and that special stillness of hisit was how he stood on the mound, watching one of the Red Sox catch-ers, Hatteberg or Veritek, flash the signs. So still (the way she was standing now), all of that deep stillness seeming to somehow spin out around him from the shoulders. And then to the set and the motion.

He's got icewater in his veins, her Dad said.

She wanted to get out of here, out of this nasty swamp to start with and then out of the damned woods altogether; wanted to get back to where there were people and stores and malls and phones and policemen who would help you if you lost your way. And she thought she could. If she could be brave. If she had just a little of the old icewater in her veins.

Breaking out of her own stillness, Trisha took off her other Reebok and knotted the laces of both sneakers together. She hung them around her neck like cuckoo-clock pendulums, debated over her socks, and decided to leave them on as a kind of compromise (as an oog-shield was the thought which actually went through her mind). She rolled the cuffs of her jeans up to her knees, then took a deep breath and let it out.

McFarland winds, McFarland pitches, she said. She resettled her Sox cap (backward this time, because back-ward was cool) and started moving again.

Trisha stepped from hummock to hummock with careful deliberation, looking up frequently in snatching little glances, setting a landmark and then moving toward it, just as she had yesterday. Only today I'm not going to panic and run, she thought. Today I've got icewater in my veins.

An hour passed, then two. Instead of firming, the ground grew boggier. Finally there was no solid ground at all, except for the hummocks. Trisha went from one to the next, steadying herself with branches and bushes where she could, holding her arms out for balance like a tightrope walker where there was nothing good to hold onto. Finally she came to a place where there was no hummock within jumping distance. She took a moment to steel herself and then stepped into the stagnant water, startling up a cloud of waterbugs and releasing a stench of peaty decay. The water was not quite up to her knees. The stuff her feet were sink-ing into felt like cold, lumpy jelly. Yellowish bubbles rose in the disturbed water; swirling in them were black fragments of who knew what.

Gross, she moaned, moving forward toward the nearest hummock. Oh, gross. Gross-gross-gross. Gag a maggot.

She walked in lurching forward strides, each ending in a hard yank as she pulled her foot free. She tried not to think of what would happen if she couldn't do that, if she got stuck in the bottom ooze and started to sink.

Gross-gross-gross. It had become a chant. Sweat ran down her face in warm droplets and stung in her eyes. The crickets seemed stuck on one high endless note: reeeeeeeee.

Ahead of her, on the hummock which was her next stop, three frogs jumped out of the grass and into the water, plip-plip-plop.

Bud-Why-Zer, Trisha said, and smiled wanly.

There were tadpoles by the thousands swimming in the yellow-black murk around her. As she looked down at them one of her feet encountered something hard and covered with slimea log, maybe. Trisha managed to flounder over it without falling and reach the hummock. Gasping, she pulled herself up and looked anxiously at her mud-slimy feet and legs, half-expecting to see bloodsuckers or some-thing even worse squirming all over them. There was noth-ing awful (that she could see, at least), but she was covered in crud right up to her knees. She peeled off her socks, which were black, and the white skin beneath looked more like socks than her socks did. This caused Trisha to laugh maniacally. She lay back on her elbows and howled at the sky, not wanting to laugh like that, like (insane people) a total idiot, but for awhile she couldn't stop. When she was finally able to, she wrung her socks out, put them back on, and got up. She stood with her hand shielding her eyes, picked out a tree with a large lower branch broken off and dangling in the water, and made that her next goal.

McFarland winds, McFarland pitches, she said tiredly, and started off again. She was no longer thinking about berries; all she wanted now was to get out of here in one piece.

There is a point at which people who are cast upon their own resources stop living and begin merely surviving. The body, with all its freshest sources of energy exhausted, falls back on stored calories. Sharpness of thought begins to dull.

Perception begins to both narrow and grow perversely bright. Things get wiggy around the edges. Trisha McFar-land approached this borderline between life and survival as her second afternoon in the woods wore on.

That she was now moving due west did not trouble her much; she thought (probably correctly) that moving consis-tently in one direction was good, the best she could do. She was hungry but for the most part not very aware of it; she was concentrating too fiercely on keeping to a straight line.

If she started to wander off to the left or right, she might still be in this stinkhole when it started to get dark, and she couldn't stand that idea. Once she did stop to drink from her water bottle, and around four o'clock she drank the rest of her Surge almost without realizing it.

The dead trees began to look less and less like trees and more and more like gaunt sentinels standing with their gnarled feet in the still black water. Be seeing faces in them again pretty soon, she thought. While wading past one of these trees (there were no hummocks for almost thirty feet in any direction), she tripped over another submerged root or branch and this time sprawled full-length, splashing and gasping. She got a mouthful of gritty, silty water and spat it out with a cry. She could see her hands in the dark water.

They looked yellowish and tallowy, like things long drowned. She pulled them out and held them up.

I'm all right, Trisha said rapidly, and she was almost aware of crossing some vital line; could almost feel herself going over into some other country where the language was different and the money was funny. Things were changing.

But I'm all right. Yeah, I'm all right. And her pack was still dry. That was important because her Walkman was inside, and now her Walkman was her only link to the world.

Filthy, now soaked all down her front, Trisha pushed onward. The new landmark was a dead tree that split halfway up and became a black letter Y against the declin-ing sun. She moved toward it. She came to a hummock, glanced at it briefly, and waded on through the water instead. Why bother? Wading was quicker. Her revulsion at the cold decayed jelly on the bottom had faded. You could get used to anything, if you had to. She knew that now.

Not long after taking her first spill, Trisha began passing the time of day with Tom Gordon. At first this seemed strangeweird, evenbut as the long hours of late after-noon went by, she lost her self-consciousness and chattered away quite naturally, telling him which landmark she was heading for next, explaining to him that a fire had probably caused this swamp, assuring him that they would be out soon, it couldn't go on like this forever. She was telling him that she hoped the Red Sox would score about twenty runs in the game tonight so he could take it easy out there in the bullpen when she suddenly broke off.

Do you hear something? she asked.

She didn't know about Tom, but she did: the steady whap-ping pulse of helicopter blades. Distant but unmistakable.

Trisha was resting on a hummock when she heard the sound.

She jumped to her feet and turned in a complete circle, hand up and shading her eyes, squinting at the horizon.

She saw nothing, and before long the sound faded.

Spaghetti, she said disconsolately. But at least they were looking. She slapped a mosquito on her neck and got moving again.

Ten or fifteen minutes later she was standing on the half-submerged root of a tree in her filthy, unraveling stockings and looking ahead, both wondering and puzzled. Beyond the straggling line of broken trees where she now was, the bog opened out into a flat, stagnant pond. Running across the center were more hummocks, but these were brown and seemed made of broken twigs and gnawed branches. Sitting on top of several and staring at her were half a dozen fat brown animals.

Slowly the lines on Trisha's forehead smoothed out as she realized what they were. She forgot all about being in the swamp, about being wet and muddy and tired, about being lost.

Tom, she whispered a little breathlessly. Those're beavers! Beavers sitting on beaver-houses or beaver tepees or whatever you call them. They are, aren't they?

She stood on tiptoes, holding the trunk of the tree for balance, staring and delighted. Beavers lounging on top of their stick-houses... and were they watching her? She thought they were, especially the one in the middle. He was bigger than the others, and it seemed to Trisha that his black eyes never left her face. He appeared to have whiskers, and his fur was a luxuriant dark brown, shading almost to auburn around his plump haunches. Looking at him made her think of the illustrations in The Wind in the Willows.

Finally Trisha stepped off the root and got moving again, her shadow trailing out long behind her. At once the Head Beaver (so she thought him) got up, backed away until his hindquarters were in the water, and slapped down smartly with his tail. It made a whacking sound that was incredibly loud in the still hot air. A moment later they were all diving off the stick-houses, going into the water in unison. It was like watching an aqua-diving team. Trisha gazed at them with her hands clasped against her breastbone and a big grin on her face. It was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen in her life, and she understood that she'd never be able to explain why, or how the Head Beaver had looked like a wise old schoolmaster or something.

Tom, look! She pointed, laughing. Look at the water!

There they go! Yeah, baby!

Half a dozen Vs formed in the murky water, moving away from the stick-houses in bow-waves. Then they were gone and Trisha started moving again. Her current land-mark was an extra-large hummock with dark green ferns growing all over it like wild hair. She approached it along a gradual arc instead of walking in a straight line. Seeing the beavers had been greattotally ghetto, in Pepsi-esebut she had no desire to encounter one while it was swimming underwater. She had seen enough pictures to know that even little beavers had big teeth. For awhile Trisha uttered a shriek each time a submerged bit of grass or weed brushed against her, sure it was the Head Beaver (or one of his min-ions), wanting her out of the neighborhood.

Keeping the beaver-condos always on her right, she approached the extra-large hummockand as she drew closer, a sense of hopeful excitement began to grow in her.

Those dark green ferns weren't just ferns, she thought; she had been fiddleheading with her mother and grandmother three springs in a row, and she thought those were fiddle-108 heads. Fiddleheads were over in Sanfordhad been for at least a monthbut her mother had told her they came into season quite a bit later inland, almost up until July in espe-cially marshy places. It was hard to believe anything good could come out of this smelly patch of creation, but the closer Trisha got, the surer she became. And fiddleheads weren't just good; fiddleheads were delicious. Even Pete, who had never met a green vegetable he liked (except for frozen Birds Eye peas nuked in the microwave), ate fiddleheads.

She told herself not to expect too much, but five minutes after the possibility first occurred to her, Trisha was sure.

That was no mere hummock up ahead; that was Fiddlehead Island! Except maybe, she thought as she drew closer, wad-ing slowly through water that was now thigh-deep, Bug Island would be a better name. There were lots of bugs out here, of course, but she kept replenishing her mudpack and had pretty much forgotten about them until now. The air over Fiddlehead Island absolutely shimmered with them, and not just minges and noseeums. There were a gazillion flies as well. As she drew closer she could hear their somnolent, somehow shiny buzz.

She was still half a dozen steps away from the first bunches of plump furled greens when she stopped, hardly aware of her feet settling into the muddy mulch under the water. The greenery bordering this side of the tussock was shredded and torn; here and there soggy uprooted bunches of fiddleheads still floated on the black water. Further up she could see bright red splashes on the green.

I don't like this, she murmured, and when she next moved it was to her left instead of straight ahead. Fiddle-heads were fine, but there was something dead or badly wounded up there. Maybe the beavers fought with each other for mates or something. She wasn't yet hungry enough to dare meeting a wounded beaver while gathering an early supper. That would be a good way to lose a hand or an eye.

Halfway around Fiddlehead Island, Trisha stopped again. She didn't want to look, but at first she couldn't look away. Hey, Tom, she said in a high trembling voice. Oh hey, bad.

It was the severed head of a small deer. It had rolled down the slope of the tussock, leaving a trail of blood and matted fiddlehead ferns behind. It now lay upside down at the water's edge. Its eyes shimmered with nits. Regiments of flies had alit on the ragged stump of its neck. They hummed like a small motor.

I see its tongue, she said, and her voice was far away, down an echoing hallway. The gold suntrack on the water was suddenly too bright, and she felt herself swaying on the edge of a faint.

No, she whispered. No, don't let me, I can't.

This time her voice, although lower, seemed closer and more there. The light looked almost normal again. Thank Godthe last thing she wanted was to faint while standing almost waist-deep in stagnant, mucky water. No fiddle-heads, but no fainting, either. It almost balanced.

She pushed ahead, walking faster and being less careful about testing her footing before settling her weight. She moved in an exaggerated side-to-side motion, hips rotating, arms going back and forth across her body in short arcs. She guessed if she had a leotard on, she'd look like the guest of the day on Workout with Wendy. Say, everybody, today we're doing some brand-new exercises. I call this one Getting away from the torn-off deer's head. Pump those hips, flex those butts, work those shoulders!

She kept her eyes pointed forward, but there was no way not to hear the heavy, somehow self-satisfied drone of the flies. What had done it? Not a beaver, that was for sure. No beaver ever tore a deer's head off, no matter how sharp its teeth were.

You know what it was, the cold voice told her. It was the thing. The special thing. The one that's watching you right now.

Nothing's watching me, that's crap, she panted. She risked a glance over her shoulder and was glad to see Fid-dlehead Island falling behind. Not quite fast enough, though. She glimpsed the head lying at the edge of the water one last time, the brown thing wearing a buzzing black necklace. That's crap, isn't it, Tom?

But Tom didn't answer. Tom couldn't answer. Tom was probably at Fenway Park by now, joking around with his fellow teammates and putting on his bright white home uniform. The Tom Gordon walking through the bog with herthis endless bogwas just a little homeopathic cure for loneliness. She was on her own.

Except you're not, sugar. You're not alone at all.

Trisha was terribly afraid the cold voice, although not her friend, was telling the truth. That feeling of being watched had come back, and stronger than ever. She tried to dismiss it as nerves (anyone would have jumpy nerves after seeing that torn-off head) and had almost succeeded when she came to a tree which had been scored with half a dozen diagonal cuts through its old dead bark. It was as if some-thing very big and in a very bad frame of mind had slashed at it on its way by.

Oh my God, she said. Those are claw-marks.

It's up ahead, Trisha. Up ahead waiting for you, claws and all.

Trisha could see more standing water, more hummocks, what looked like another green, rising hill (but she had been fooled that way before). She saw no beast... but of course she wouldn't, would she? The beast would do whatever beasts did while they were waiting to spring, there was a word for it but she was too tired and scared and generally miserable to think of it...

They lurk, said the cold voice. That's what they do, they lurk.

Yeah, baby. Especially special ones like your new friend.

Lurk, Trisha croaked. Yes, that's the word. Thank you. And then she started forward again because it was too far to go back. Even if something really was waiting up ahead to kill her, it was too far to go back.

This time what looked like solid ground turned out to be solid ground. At first Trisha wouldn't let herself believe it, but as she drew closer and still couldn't see water cutting through that mass of green bushes and scrubby trees, she began to hope. The water in which she was wading was shallower, too: only up to mid-shin instead of to her knees or thighs. And there were more fiddleheads growing on at least two of the hummocks. Not as many as there had been back on Fiddlehead Island, but she picked what there were and gobbled them down. They were sweet, with a faintly acrid aftertaste. It was a green taste, and Trisha thought it absolutely delicious. She would have picked more and stored them in her pack if there had been more, but there weren't. Instead of mourning this, she relished what she had with a child's single-mindedness. There was enough for now; she would worry about later later. She snacked her way toward solid ground, biting off the furled nubbins and then nibbling on the stalks. She was hardly aware of wading through the bog now; her revulsion had passed.

As she reached toward the last few fiddleheads growing on the second hummock, her hand froze. She heard the somnolent buzzing of flies again. It was a lot louder this time. Trisha would have angled away from it if she could, but as the swamp ran out it had become choked with dead branches and drowned bushes. There seemed to be only a single halfway-clear channel through this mess, and she'd have to take it unless she wanted to spend an extra two hours struggling over submerged barriers and maybe cut-ting her feet up in the process.

Even in this channel, she was forced to clamber over one downed tree. It had fallen just recently, and fallen was really the wrong word. Trisha could see more slash-marks in its bark, and although the butt-end of its trunk was lost in a tangle of bushes, she could see how fresh and white the wood of the stump was. The tree had gotten in something's way, and so the something had simply pushed it over, snap-ping it like a toothpick.

The buzzing grew louder still. The rest of the deer most of it, anywaywas lying at the foot of an extravagant splurge of fiddleheads near the spot where Trisha finally climbed wearily out of the swamp. It lay in two pieces which were connected by a fly-shining snarl of intestines.

One of its legs had been torn off and stood propped against the trunk of a nearby tree like a walking stick.

Trisha put the back of her right hand over her mouth and hurried rapidly on, making weird little urk-urk sounds as she went and trying with all her might not to upchuck. The thing that had killed the deer wanted her to upchuck, maybe. Was that possible? The rational part of her mind (and there was still quite a lot of it) said no, but it seemed to her that something had deliberately polluted the two biggest, lushest growths of fiddleheads in the bog with a deer's man-113 gled body. And if it had done that, was it impossible to believe it might try to make her throw up the little nourish-ment she had managed to scrounge?

Yes. It is. You're being a dork. Forget it. And don't upchuck, for heaven's sake!

The urk-urk noisesthey were like big, meaty hiccups began to space themselves out as she walked west (keeping on a westward course was easy now, with the sun low in the sky) and the sound of the flies began to recede. When it was entirely gone, Trisha stopped, took off her socks, then slipped her sneakers back on. She wrung the socks out again, then held them up and looked at them. She could remember putting them on in her Sanford bedroom, just sitting there on the end of the bed and putting them on while she sang Put your arms around me... cuz I gotta get next to you under her breath. That was Boyz To Da Maxx; she and Pepsi thought Boyz To Da Maxx were yummy, espe-cially Adam. She remembered the patch of sun on the floor.

She remembered her Titanic poster on the wall. This mem-ory of putting on her socks in her bedroom was very clear but very distant. She guessed it was the way old people like Grampa remembered things which had happened when they were kids. Now the socks were little more than holes held together by strings, and that made her feel like crying again (probably because she herself felt like holes held together by strings), but she controlled that, too. She rolled the socks and put them in her pack.

She was re-fastening the buckles when she heard the whup-whup-whup of helicopter rotor-blades again. This time they sounded much closer. Trisha bounded to her feet and turned around with her wet clothes flapping. And there, off in the east, black against the blue sky, were two shapes.

They reminded her a little bit of the dragonflies back there in Dead Deer Swamp. There was no sense waving and shouting, they were about a billion miles away, but she did it anywayshe couldn't help herself. At last, when her throat was raw, she quit.

Look, Tom, she said, following them wistfully from left to right... north to south, that would be. Look, they're trying to find me. If they'd just come a little bit closer...

But they didn't. The distant helicopters disappeared behind the bulk of the forest. Trisha stood where she was, not moving until the sound of the rotors had faded into the steady hum of the crickets. Then she fetched a deep sigh and knelt to tie her sneakers. She couldn't feel anything watching her anymore, that was one thing Oh you liar, the cold voice said. It was amused. You little liar you.

But she wasn't lying, at least not on purpose. She was so tired and so mixed up she wasn't sure what she felt...

except still hungry and thirsty. Now that she was out of the muck and the goo (and away from the torn corpse of the deer), she felt hunger and thirst very clearly. It crossed her mind to go back and pick more of the fiddleheads after allshe could steer clear of the deer's body and the goriest, bloodiest places, surely.

She thought of Pepsi, who was sometimes impatient with Trisha if Trisha scraped her knee while they were rollerblad-ing or fell while they were tree-climbing. If she saw tears welling in Trisha's eyes, Pepsi was apt to say, Don't go all girly on me, McFarland. God knew she couldn't afford to go all girly about a dead deer, not in a situation like this, but...

.. . but she was afraid that the thing which had killed the deer might still be there, watching and waiting. Hoping she'd come back.

As for drinking the bog-water, get serious. Dirt was one thing. Dead bugs and mosquito eggs were something else.

Could mosquitoes hatch in a person's stomach? Probably not. Did she want to find out for sure? Definitely not.

I'll probably find some more fiddleheads, anyway, she said. Right, Tom? And berries, too. Tom didn't reply, but before she could have any second thoughts, she got moving again.

She walked west for another three hours, at first moving slowly, then able to go a little faster as she entered a more mature stretch of woods. Her legs ached and her back throbbed, but neither of these hurting places drew much of her attention. Not even her hunger occupied her mind to any real degree. As the day's light went first to golden and then to red, it was her thirst that came to dominate Trisha's thoughts. Her throat was dry and throbbing; her tongue felt like a dusty worm. She cursed herself for not having drunk from the swamp when she had the chance, and once she stopped, thinking, Screw this, I'm going back.

You better not try, sweetheart, said the cold voice. You'd never find your way. Even if you were lucky enough to backtrack perfectly, it would be dark before you got there... and who knows what might be waiting?

: 2015-09-15; : 7;

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