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THE WEST SIDE of the ravine in which Trisha had taken her rest-stop was considerably steeper than the side she had come down. She climbed it with the aid of several trees, got to the top, and headed over more even ground in the direction the voices had come from. There was a lot of underbrush, though, and she swerved around several thorny, close-packed patches of it. At each swerve she kept her eyes pointed in the direction of the main trail. She walked in this fashion for ten minutes or so, then stopped. In that tender place between her chest and her stomach, the place where all the body's wires seemed to come together in a clump, she felt the first minnowy flutter of disquiet. Shouldn't she have come to the North Conway branch of the Appalachian Trail by now? It certainly seemed so; she hadn't gone far down the Kezar Notch branch, probably not more than fifty paces (surely no more than sixty, seventy at the very most), and so the gap between the two diverging arms of the Y couldn't be very big, could it?
She listened for voices on the main trail, but now the woods were silent. Well, that wasn't true. She could hear the sough of the wind through the big old west-country pines, she could hear the squawk of a jay and the far-off hammering of a woodpecker digging his midmorning snack out of a hollow tree, she could hear a couple of freshly arrived mosquitoes (they were buzzing around both ears now), but no human voices. It was as if she were the only person in all these big woods, and although that was ridiculous, the minnow fluttered in that hollow place once more. A little more strongly this time.
Trisha started walking forward again, faster now, wanting to get to the trail, wanting the relief of the trail. She came to a great fallen tree, too high to climb over, and decided to wriggle under it instead. She knew the smart thing would be to go around, but what if she lost her bearings?
You've already lost them, a voice in her head whispered -a terrible cold voice.
"Shut up, I have not, you shut up," she whispered back, and dropped to her knees. There was a hollow running beneath one section of the moss-caked old trunk, and Trisha squirmed into it. The leaves lining it were wet, but by the time she realized this the front of her shirt was already soaked through and she decided it didn't matter. She wriggled further and her pack hit the trunk of the tree-thump.
"Damn and blast!" she whispered (damn and blast was her and Pepsi's current favorite swear-it sounded so English country-house, somehow) and backed up. She got to her knees, brushed clinging damp leaves from her shirt, and noticed as she did that her fingers were trembling.
"I'm not scared," she said, speaking out loud on purpose because the sound of her voice whispering was freaking her out a little. "Not scared a bit. The trail's right there. I'll be on it in five minutes, and running to catch up." She took off her pack and, pushing it ahead of her, began to crawl under the tree again.
Halfway out, something moved under her. She looked down and saw a fat black snake slithering through the leaves. For a moment every thought in her mind disappeared into a silent white explosion of revulsion and horror. Her skin turned to ice and her throat closed. She could not even think the single word snake but only feel it, coldly pulsing under her warm hand. Trisha shrieked and tried to bolt to her feet, forgetting that she wasn't yet in the clear. A stump of branch thick as an amputated forearm poked agonizingly into the small of her back. She went flat on her stomach again and wriggled out from under the tree as fast as she could, probably looking a bit like a snake herself.
The nasty thing was gone, but her terror lingered. It had been right under her hand, hidden in the dead leaves and right under her hand. Evidently not a biter, thank God. But what if there were more? What if they were poisonous? What if the woods were full of them? And of course they were, the woods were full of everything you didn't like, everything you were afraid of and instinctively loathed, everything that tried to overwhelm you with nasty, no-brain panic. Why had she ever agreed to come? Not only agreed but agreed cheerfully?
She snagged the strap of her pack in one hand and hurried on with it banging against her leg, casting mistrustful looks back at the fallen tree and the leafy spaces between the standing ones, afraid of seeing the snake, even more afraid that she might see a whole battalion of them, like snakes in a horror movie, Invasion of the Killer Snakes, starring Patricia McFarland, the riveting tale of a little girl lost in the woods and
"I am not I-" Trisha began, and then, because she was looking back over her shoulder, she tripped on a rock sticking out of the mulchy earth, staggered, waved the arm not holding her pack in a doomed effort to keep her balance, and then fell heavily on her side. This sent up a flare of pain from her lower back, where the stump of branch had jabbed her.
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 direction 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 (poisonous 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 slithery, 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 lowtopped 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, anyway.
This time her voice convinced her a little and she felt better. 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 mosquitoes, 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 discomfort. 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 dotted 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 landmark 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 direction? It might be the wrong direction just by a little, but she bad 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 bugspray, 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 drowning 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 bear 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 situation. Her voice trembled, became first the wavery voice of a little kid and then almost the shriek of a baby who lies forgotten 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 calling for help, calling for help because she was lost.
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