In a Dark Wood
An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
Luke came up behind me. I pointed, hand shaking, at the cross carved into the white bark of the tree.
"We’re going in goddamned circles!"
He was silent. Beneath the drone of insects I could hear the even tenor of his breathing although we’d hiked a good nine miles already that autumn afternoon -- and no end to it in sight. My head ached and I had a stitch in my side like someone was jabbing me with a hot poker.
I lowered my pack to the ground, lowered myself to a fallen tree -- this time not bothering to check for ant nests or coiled rattlers -- put my face in my hands and lost it. I mean, lost it. Tears... oh, yeah. Shoulders shaking, shuddering sobs. I didn’t even care anymore what he thought.
"Tim..." He dropped his pack too, sat down next to me on the log. He sounded sort of at a loss. After a minute he patted my shoulder. Awkwardly.
I turned away from him and tried to wipe my face on my shirt sleeve.
Feeling him fumbling around with his pack, I watched him through stiff wet lashes. He pulled out his canteen, unscrewed the top and offered it to me.
I took the canteen, swallowed the warm stale water, handed it back. Wiped my face again. Perfect. My nose was running. Not that it mattered. It’s not like I had a shred of dignity left.
First dates. You’ve got to love ‘em.
But I mean, what kind of fucking sadist chooses camping for a first date?
Fast forward to the end of this one: we’d shake hands at my Brownstone door --assuming we got out of this field trip into Hell alive -- and he’d promise to call, and with equal insincerity I’d say I looked forward to it.
I’d never see him again -- and that was the only bright side to this whole -- literally -- walking nightmare.
Luke pulled a cloth out of his pack and wet it with the canteen.
"Here, look at me."
I looked at him. He wiped my face with the wet cloth, shocking me into immobility. His own face was serious, his hazel eyes studied me. I closed my eyes and he gently swiped my eyelids, washing away the sweat and tears.
I lifted my lashes, got my lips steady enough to form words. "Oh, sure. Great."
"I thought you were a travel writer?"
"I’m not an explorer! I write about comfortable hotels with clean sheets and hot water. My idea of roughing it is a two star restaurant!"
The corner of his mouth tugged as though, against his will, he found this just a little bit comical. What the hell could be funny about any of this?
"Listen, we’re not lost."
I opened my mouth and he said, "I don’t mean I know where we are. But I can get us out of here, if that’s what you want. I’ve got a compass and we can start walking east and be back to civilization within a few hours."
I swallowed hard. First off, there was no place in New Jersey that even remotely qualified as "civilization," but that was beside the point.
Luke said, "And, for the record, we’re not going in circles. Look again at that carving on the tree. It’s not a fresh cut. Look at the edges. They curl, but they’re worn. It’s not your mark. At least, it’s not the mark you made today."
I blinked at him stupidly.
He said, "I think it’s your mark from twelve years ago."
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.