Alone Again

How long does it take for a person to realize they are in a nightmare? I used to have a recurring dream where a huge crawfish, huge as in destroying a Japanese city, would slowly rise from the depths of a lake and for some reason it was focused solely on me. As hard as I tried, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t run away. Frustration would mount exponentially as my feet felt mired in deep mud on dry ground. I could see my mouth move yet my voice was muted as if glued closed. Screams for help went unheard. We never really accept the fate of the monster actually catching us. Some say when we do, when we are killed in a nightmare, we die in real life. For the moment, I was alive.

I wasn’t sure if it was a fading reflection or a bend in the river that made Darlene and her canoe disappear. I didn’t know how close they were if they made it to shore or if Ross was still with them. I only knew I had to get away. I wasn’t thinking straight. I hurried into the woods, panicked, and stricken with fear. I tripped after only a few steps and fell hard striking the right side of my face against a tree. I was dazed and dizzy. I tried to get back up and run but fell back to the ground. I felt myself spinning like a dog chasing its tail while turning inside out, retching foul yellow bile.

“Gotta, gotta go, gotta go.” My through-drool inspirational chant.

I was foolish to try and run through the woods in the dark. I realized as much after a self-inflicted tree punch to the face set my mind on level ground. I crawled back to the river. I could not see anyone, nor could I hear anything besides the water. The river sang songs, her water told intrepid tales of shaping rock, toppling trees, and scouring the very earth. No matter who, no matter when, all who have passed this way before have bowed to her will.

I worked my way upstream along the bank. Occasionally I could get to my feet and cover more ground, other times I would stumble and crawl until I could muster the power to gain my footing again. Eventually the river widened and slowed. Its song grew distant as the last of all I had was gone. I dragged myself into a stand of dense cedars along the shoreline to hide from a sliver of light in the sky. I wondered if I chose to die, if I gave up right then and there if I would be found. Would I be just another story, another missing person like Gage or the vaguely counted others who had come before us? The river knew. She was still singing her song, although more distantly, mocking me with the refrain. I wanted her to just shut up, to go away and take my memory with her. But she couldn’t be quieted as long as she had her water. If I took her water, I’d take her life. As I drifted off to sleep, I knew what needed to be done. I thanked her for the answer. Somehow, some way, I was going to have to take Darlene’s water.

For the first few seconds after I woke, I focused only on the bright green branches hovering over my face. I had forgotten everything. There was no Darlene, no Bob, not even Ross, just me and the branch. A large black bee hovered close, checking me out, apparently wondering what the hell I was doing under his tree.

“Just hangin’ out buddy, just hangin’ out,” I told him.

I braced my rib cage and sat upright. Everything came rushing back to me at double speed, powered by a revenge engine running on high octane anger. I did my best to recall every last moment of pain and misery she inflicted on me. I wanted all of it at my disposal when the time came to settle the debt.

Mentally, if I wavered, if I doubted, I would be letting the specter of failure inside. Everything needed to become an achievable goal. Standing, walking, even planning to stand and walk became goals for which I would demand self-congratulation.

My direction of travel was never in doubt. I would go where she went, downstream. A straight, bark less branch as tall as me and as big around as my wrist became my staff. Whenever I rested I ground the end on hard rock, shaping it to a sharp point. Not only did it help me negotiate the rocky shoreline, I would eventually be able to push it through Darlene’s heart.

Progress was steady. I had no idea what time I woke up. It felt like afternoon. My thirst was easily quenched by the river with a pair of cupped hands. A knot tied in my undershirt helped to wrap my injured rib. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises were just absorbed as fuel. My heart skipped as if I had just fallen in love when I spotted it, Bob’s green bag. Just a short distance offshore, washed onto a sun-bleached boulder twice its size it lay precariously, tempting me with contents unknown. I backed up into the brushy wooded cover near shore and sat perfectly still.

If it was cheese, I was going to have to be a careful mouse. If it was cheese, had they seen me yet? If it was cheese, how did they know I didn’t drown? But if it wasn’t cheese, there was food in the bag, maybe more. If it wasn’t cheese, Bob’s canoe went over as well. If it wasn’t cheese, Ross could have gotten away. As much as I didn’t want to sacrifice the daylight, I waited for the cover of darkness to take the bait. I never thought I would be so happy to find brown, dried meat. What could be better? Gage’s knife to cut it with.

Slowly I worked my way back into the dark woods out of sight of the shoreline. I chopped dry pine needles until they were no more than dashes in a small print romance novel. Throughout the day I practiced throwing rocks, hoping that maybe if I got close enough, I could kill something to eat. The blackest rocks were the hardest. I struck the back of the blade against the stone with the hopes of generating a spark. After a thousand tries, I had generated nothing but fatigue and frustration.

“Damn!” I tossed the knife down, angry.

“You might find it easier with one of these,” a lighter out of the darkness lit up Ross’ face.

“Holy shit! You made it!” I cried.

I sprung to my feet and embraced him.

“Was there ever a doubt?” he said sarcastically.

“Ow, oh, not too hard, bitch broke my rib,” I said pulling out of the hug.

“How did you find me? What happened?” I asked.

“I just followed the sound. I wasn’t too far away. I didn’t know if it was going to be you, but I hoped it was anyways. Hell of a job dumping the boat, I thought you were done for,” he said.

“What happened to you? To them? Last I saw I thought maybe you were spinning or something and then I was under,” I said.

“Yeah, well, Darlene was screaming, and Bob reached out his paddle to try and pull her in. Once we got sideways it was just a matter of time till we dumped. They tied me to a rock, but it didn’t hold in the rapids. They were both on the backs of the canoes headed down stream last I saw. After I got my wits about me, I started back up to hopefully find you,” he said.

“You hurt?” I asked.

“The jackass hit me when he had me tied, bashed me with the gun, knocked me out a few times, lost some blood, swelled-up eye but other than that…he never did search me all that well. I always have extra lighters on me, never know when you’re going to need one. I think when he found my knife he must have figured that was it,” Ross said.

“Well he lost his bag, I thought they were baiting me, so I waited to grab it,” I told him.

“I’ve got a small fire going, a decent place to sleep, c’mon,” Ross said.

The fire felt like life itself. Hot jerky on a stick was as close to five stars as I may have ever been.

“I don’t suppose there any kind of container in that bag was there?” Ross asked.

“For what? No, nothing,” I said.

“I wanted to boil some water, I’m thirsty as hell,” he said.

“I’ve just been scooping water up out of the river. Tastes fine,” I said.

“Hmm, taking a hell of a chance. It’s not the taste that concerns me. See that stick you’re carrying?” he asked.

“My walking spear?” I said in jest.

“Yeah, what do you think took the bark off it?” he asked.

“Beavers I would guess,” I said.

“Exactly, beavers. Where there’s beavers. There’s beaver fever,” he said.

“Beaver fever, whatever,” I said, half laughing.

“No, I’m serious, beaver fever is a nickname. It’s real name is Giardiasis, it’s a parasite and it’s no joke, stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, it’s definitely a rough ride,” he said.

“Great. Way to tell me about it before,” I said.

“Well, hopefully we can get out of here before it sets in, if you have it anyways. I might have to chance it myself,” he said.

“Depends on how long it takes to kill that bitch,” I said.

“What? No, no, we have to get out, get back to town,” Ross pleaded.

“My ass. Look, I hate to tell you this, but I wasn’t headed downstream looking for you. I mean if I found you, great, but I didn’t really think you got away. Actually I was thinking I was going to have to rescue you. No way, uh uh, bitch has got to pay,” I said.

“And just what are you going to do? She’s got a rifle, remember? Not to mention your gun,” Ross said.

“Ain’t shit if she don’t hear me comin’. I’ll jamb this stick in her ass if I have to. One way or another, she’s gonna pay. And, I’m doing it with or without you,” I said convincingly.

Maybe it was the reflection of the fire in my eyes, or maybe it was the inflection in my voice, but either way he bought what I was selling.

“What the hell are you doing now?” I asked.

“We’ll stay warmer if we huddle together,” he said.

“Right, you better save your energy, we’re going to need it,” I said.

For a moment, warm in his embrace, I was as content as I had been since any time in recent memory.

“Awww, ain’t you two cute,” she said.

Of course it was her. The voice was unmistakable. I made a move for the spear.

“Ah, ah, ahh. No, no, no honey, I don’t think so,” she said as she moved closer to the dwindling flame making it apparent that she had a rifle pointed at my head.

“You two done caused me and ole Bob a lot a grief. Specially you girl. Took some doin’ to find ya too. Now we gonna do it a different way,” she said as she cocked the rifle.

Darlene raised the gun to her shoulder.

“No, maybe I’ll peg your boyfriend here first, make you watch,” Darlene said.

My clenched fists concealed a rage unknown to many and seen by few. As fate would have it, my right fist was cliched just a little bit tighter than the left. Partly because I was so damn mad that she came back and caught us flat footed, but mostly because it was wrapped around the black stone.

As she aimed at Ross I let it fly with everything my ribs and shoulder could muster. The crack of the stone hitting her face sounded like somebody hit a raw meat with a hammer. I kicked the fire at her, showering her in sparks and burning debris as Ross and I got up and ran.

“Goddam little whore!” Darlene screamed!

Ross and I were merely yards away when she fired her rifle. I couldn’t see him in the dark of the woods. Whether he was next to me, behind me, or even in front of me, I wasn’t sure. Between the second and third shot I heard the deep gasp of air that leaves a man. The kind of noise you hear when an athlete hits hard and loses their wind. I felt a warm mist of blood graze my face followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground. He took out my legs as I too fell forward, close enough to the river where I could see moonlight reflecting off the water.

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