by C. M. Barnes
Alec and Mira take a summer vacation every year in a very rustic cabin in the wilderness. This year, Alec is beset by omens: a roaming mountain lion, unfriendly neighbors, unwelcome visitors, and fraught memories of his father. All coincide to signal danger.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Dad bought the cabin during the summer of Alec’s fourteenth year, also the summer Alec had theretofore spent worrying about why his father had been sleeping on a cot in the den. “It can be our wilderness retreat,” Dad had said to Alec by way of explanation for the arrival of the cabin in their lives, “a place for you and me to get away and have arguments with no one but the sky and the trees. Every man should have such an outlet.”
This had sounded all right to Alec. Dad sleeping in the den notwithstanding, he had been having his own share of adolescent troubles in the city. Nothing too terrible, but enough friction in the form of bloody noses grinding on middle-school lockers to welcome a smooth escape into the wilderness.
He was small for his age, was not a fighter by nature, certainly not a killer, but the world seemed intent on starting things with him that could only be finished in one of two ways, and he wasn’t a coward, either. This was something he thought Dad might be able to understand even if they hadn’t yet been unable to communicate this understanding under an urban roof.
Maybe out in the woods, they could get to the root of the issue — the truth of what it was like to have to stand up for yourself even when the standing assured you’d get your head taken off. Dad’s lead-up rhetoric had sounded promising, until it didn’t.
“I’ve never asked for much from the women in my life,” Dad said during the drive up to the cabin,“only that they destroy me gently and then have the decency not to ask for an apology afterwards. Is that so much to ask? For the succubus to let the drained corpse rest in peace?”
Fourteen-year-old Alec nodded and peered out the window. The trees were very large up here, as was the sky.
“Especially younger women. You’d think it would be obvious that one cannot make meaningful observations about life until one has at least lived it for a while. But, oh, no! Every twenty-four-year old has got the answer, and she’s eager to share it with you and your loved ones whether you want her to or not. Who knew I was tangling with such a savant? Right, bud?”
Alec examined the thick mats of hair that flowed up and down his father’s arms. They were dark, wiry, and swirled, as impenetrable as the fur on the lustrous bears illustrated in his biology textbook. Near the steering wheel, the hair on his father’s left arm snarled into the links of a gold wristwatch that Alec did not recognize. A similarly unfamiliar chain, also appearing to be gold, now hung around his father’s neck. Its two glinting strands plunged down to disappear in the shadow of two massive, pink collar wings.
“Don’t worry if this all sounds a little forbidding,” Dad said. “Life, on the whole, is an adventure. I promise you that. But I would strongly recommend doing a little research before you go believing someone to be mature for her age; this as opposed to just taking her cherry-lipsticked word for it. Especially when that cherry lipstick is already all over your... never mind.”
Sometimes, Alec wondered if he would ever develop such impressive hair on his own arms. His arms were thin, hairless, and weak. If he did, he would comb it into intricate patterns and savor being able to do so.
The cabin, at that point, had not been nearly as decked-out as it would one day become. Back then, it was more a loose assemblage of logs and cinder blocks than anything that qualified as shelter. Dad had mentioned something about getting it for a song from the neighbor, and Mom had asked him on their way out the door that morning what he’d sung. Maybe “We’ll Sweep the Ashes Out in the Morning?”
They would have to make do with sleeping bags on cots hauled up from the city. In addition to the one he had taken from the den, Dad apparently had an extra cot squirrelled away in the station wagon along with some provisions that were canned.
But then, on the first night of their arrival, he’d offered Alec half a beer and announced they would hunt deer in the morning. This had come as a surprise, not only because they had never hunted together before, but also because hunting was extremely illegal in the area. Signage on the road up had been clear.
Yes, Dad explained, the neighboring forest was technically protected, but that just meant you had to live here to make use of it. Now that they had checked that box, they were free to play Davy Crockett anywhere they liked.
When Alec had again raised the issue of the ABSOLUTELY NO HUNTING! signs posted outside the wilderness store where they’d bought the beer, Dad had dug further down through the gear in the wagon and come up with a rifle. It was a brand-new .22, the muzzle still emblazoned with the flaming red tag of the hardware store near his office in the city.
While Alec was admiring it, Dad dug down further and came up with a much larger, meaner-looking rifle. This one also looked new and bore a tag. “To be honest, I don’t really know how to use them yet,” Dad said, “but we’ll figure it out as we go. We got all week.”
And there didn’t seem to be any hurry. Instead of hunting in the morning, they spent most of the next day lounging in close vicinity to the cabin: Dad tilting back and forth in an ancient rocking chair on the porch, beer in hand, while Alec ranged through the nearby weeds, stopping every few steps to squint down the barrel of the .22.
At one point, he drew a bead on the only neighboring home, a disreputable looking ranch surrounded by a rusty stockade of what appeared to be used lumberjack equipment. As he was looking down the barrel at this structure, a young man’s thin, whiskery face appeared in one of the windows. The face looked none too pleased about being targeted and raised a pale finger pistol to point back in Alec’s direction.
Then Dad called, “Hey now,” from the porch, and Alec lowered his gun.
It wasn’t until dusk that Dad re-emerged from the cabin dressed in full camouflage. “Army surplus,” he explained. “I also got it for a song.”
“What song?” Alec asked.
He was very hungry by then and had been considering shooting one of the food cans to get at the contents.
“Funny. Let’s take these guns to the woods. But we’ll keep the tags on. Who knows but we might have to exchange for higher firepower on our next trip.”
Once they figured out where the bullets went, they waded into the forest near the fence line, taking care to high-step over the corroded pile of crosscut saw blades marking the boundary. There was no path into the woods, nothing that even suggested man had passed this way before.
The dark and encroaching flora reminded Alec of a movie he had recently scene about Vietnam. Trip wires and punji pits had featured, and the rifles plus Dad’s camouflaged backside added an unsettling verisimilitude to the memory. They plowed forward, and soon Alec’s cheeks were wet with accumulated dew and crisscrossing thorn scratches. He had not worn boots, had not even thought to bring boots, and his new Chuck T’s were taking on mud to the point he had to let go of the .22 to reach down and hold the heels when he stepped.
There were a lot of bugs, also a lot of bigger, flitting black things he first thought were birds, but eventually recognized as bats. He had never seen a bat before. He had never really expected to. “You think we’ll see one before it gets dark?” Alec said.
Charlie, Alec thought. “A deer.”
“Probably. It’s shadow hour right now; the only time we can see better than them.”
This didn’t sound right, but Alec didn’t know for sure. Then one of his shoes came off. While they stopped for him to reattach it, he said, “Don’t deer also have a strong sense of smell?”
Dad frowned and stared up into one of the massive surrounding trees. The leaves were turning black in the dusk. “I don’t think deer have much in the way of smell,” he said. “Pretty sure smell is not a factor where deer are concerned.”
“What about staying upwind and all that?”
Dad produced an open can of beer from the interior of his camouflage jacket and sipped in silence. Then they pushed further into the forest. Finally, Dad stopped, looked around, and unshouldered his rifle. “This looks about right,” he said. “Why don’t you take that side of the clearing, and I’ll take this one. Then, when Bambi passes through, we’ll have him in a crossfire.”
“Just go over there somewhere. I’ll stay over here, and don’t shoot anything unless I tell you to.”
Alec shoved off through the weeds for about ten steps then hunkered down behind a fallen log. He listened to Dad’s boots crunch off in the other direction. The crunching was followed by a silence or, more accurately, the primeval forest’s equivalent of a silence. Still a lot of creaking, chattering, and buzzing.
The new separation gave Alec unwanted space to think. Punji pits were not really the problem. Neither were the itchy scratches on his face, or the mud in his shoes, or even the mosquitoes sucking his neck. No, the problem ran deeper than the hostility of the wilderness. It was inside him, maybe inside them both — some dark, rotting thing hiding deep within. Exactly what it was, that was harder to define. Maybe it didn’t even have a name, was some as yet unidentified poison passed down through the ages, man to man, father to son.
It seemed entirely possible that he was the first boy to ever become aware of this: a secret, evil, hidden thing that only revealed itself when you were deep in the woods holding a gun. He didn’t think he should talk to anybody about these thoughts, not even Dad. It was too late to do anything about it anyway.
Only tremulous slivers of light seeped down through the leaves skittering overhead. This remaining light was pinkish, almost plum, and it was pretty in the way it glanced off the shadowed trunks of the trees. Alec examined its dully reflected glint running along the barrel of the .22. The metal seemed to swallow most of the light, a long cylinder of darkness in his lap.
The only hint that the gun was alive showed in the faint blue glimmers of oil that had rubbed off onto his tee-shirt. But the gun was alive. Of this he was certain. He didn’t know what its purpose was or if it in any way coincided with his well-being. It was just another mysterious thing intruding into his life. He cradled the stock over his knees and watched an ant step daintily off a leaf onto the muzzle.
Later, it seemed odd that he never heard the sound. There must have been a loud one, a “sharp report” as it was described in The Red Badge of Courage. But he never heard it. Instead, he only felt the impact of the bullet as it buried itself in the tree beside him. It bore deep into the trunk, silently pulling in all the air around his face along with it like a greedy little comet doing a close flyby of his skull.
His ear popped in this sudden vacuum and, when he turned to look, he discovered a new black hole in the bark a couple inches out from his nose. It appeared as if it would just fit his index finger. He tried and was surprised to find that the hole was actually a tunnel.
“Damn! Alec, you okay over there? Sound off, buddy.”
Familiar boots were stomping towards him. Dad’s shadowed face appeared over the crest of the log behind which he was still crouched. “Jesus! You good, kiddo? I was trying to crack a beer on a stump, and I elbowed the sucker. Went off like a Chinese firecracker. I’m real sorry, buddy. Tell me you’re okay.”
“I,” Alec said slowly, “am okay.”
His finger was jammed into the hole up to the second knuckle.
“Damn,” Dad intoned, more softly this time. “Is that where the sucker went in?” As if hooked to a powerful but invisible current, his chin twitched back and forth through the gloom. “Tell me you’re not fingering that tree where it went in. That is way too close.”
Alec twisted his finger around in the hole. It made a faint squeaking sound. The interior of the tree was warm. “This would definitely have gone through my head,” he said. The words came out with no inflection. It was like he was back in science class, like he was just making an observation based on a hypothesis.
“Damn straight it would have gone through your head. And then I would have had to put one through mine. Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to look at that hole for another second.”
“What about your gun?”
Dad was empty-handed. “Screw it,” he said. “I don’t give a rat’s ass. Leave yours behind, too. Let the animals revenge themselves upon one another.”
Alec let the .22 slide off his lap onto the forest floor. There, it looked even more like an alien artifact, some shining implement dropped into the mud from another world. He thought it might rise to follow him as he got up and began to trudge away. It didn’t. Maybe some animal would make a home in it tonight, something gross like a snake or a grub. This thought provoked nothing but a feeling of sleepiness as he stomped after Dad’s camouflaged back. Still, he was conscious on some level of trying not to think about things he didn’t want to think about.
After a short but furious bushwhack back through the forest, Alec headed for the cabin door, but Dad caught up with him on the porch. He grabbed Alec by the shoulder and spun him back around towards the station wagon. “I think one near-death experience about fills your quota for the week, don’t you? Probably time I get you home.”
“You can’t be serious,” Alec said. He’d always had a mature way of talking. It’s what got him pounded into lockers at school.
“Afraid so, bud. I’m just not comfortable with you up here. Maybe when you’re a little older.”
Alec concentrated on the feel of his father’s hand on his shoulder. There was something proprietary in it for sure, but also something else, something faint and tremulous, like a grasshopper wing right before you pull it off. “But I don’t want to go,” he said, as if that mattered.
“I hear you, but this is the way it’s got to be.”
“You mean it’s the way you want it to be.”
The grip tightened. Dad’s chin was twitching again. “I don’t trust myself around you, all right?” he said. “Is that what you want to hear? Because it’s the truth, not that I appreciate you making me say it. Now head for the car.”
Alec twisted back around and, still under grip, kicked the ancient rocking chair off the porch. The chair made a cracking sound as it departed his foot, and one of his muddy Chuck Ts flew off after it, laces twirling. Both chair and shoe landed in the weeds beside the cabin’s crumbling foundation.
“I guess that was necessary,” Dad said, still holding on, “not that that chair ever did anything to you.”
“I hate this,” Alec said.
The grip released. “Go get your sneaker.”
“I hate what you did to Mom.”
“We’ll have to figure out something to tell her on the way.”
Three hours later, they reached the base of the mountain. They hit the city limit long after midnight and pulled up to the house around 3:00 a.m. A hollow-eyed possum was just departing the drive when Dad swung up behind his customary stall and gently patted Alec on the knee. “Listen,” he said, “this doesn’t mean we’re not going to have some good times up there, but clearly I’ve got some things to figure out first, and they’re not the kind of things I can work on with an audience. Someday, this’ll make more sense, but, for now, fake a temperature or something. Mom should be up in a few hours, and you’ve got a key to the side door. If by some miracle she asks, say I’m doing fine.”
Alec stared into the fine dusting of raindrops that had accumulated above the wiper blades. They were too small to have any definite shape and faded in and out of each other in the weak reflection of the headlights. The blades swung up again and smeared them into nothing. “You’re so full of shit,” he said to the windshield.
“You’re just going to have to take my word on this one.”
The blades screeched along the dry glass. “And why should I ever do that?” Alec said, “Considering—”
Alec felt pressure on his back as he exited the wagon, another departing pat. Before he could turn to get the door, he heard it slam behind him, and the wagon began to recede down the drive. He watched it go, shivering over one sock and one shoe.
* * *
Copyright © 2021 by C. M. Barnes