I stumble on an embedded pine cone and knock my shoulder against the denuded limb of an otherwise-yellowish evergreen. Must be two-hundred billion bad-ass ugly trees in New Jersey’s pine barrens. And half of them are staring back at me, blocking my course. I feel like a tick, fighting his way through dog hair.
My progress is slow and increasingly less steady through, around, and under these nasty scrub pine trees. Underline slow. Adding to my inevitable immobility, Gianni’s bug-out bag tows behind me like a dead horse.
Although there is a lot of good shit in here.
Checking the enclosed compass, for instance, I know I’m hiking due east. This is strategically important because I can’t negotiate two steps without tripping over a cone, make two yards without ducking under a snapped limb. I’ve suffered tougher getting a bathroom stall at Giant Stadium, true, but keeping my direction would be impossible for this backwoods tenderfoot were it not for Gianni’s unusual compass.
Inside a black plastic hexagon, a bubble lens magnifies a tightly bunched field of art--the N,S,E and W on the background of a lurid, psychedelic nude woman.
She’s fun to hold.
I’m not stopping to listen for Creeper anymore. I figure he either came right after me, in contempt, or he decided to make a call for backup. If he came after me, he’d be here by now. At the very least, I figure I should hear trees falling.
No, a Bluefish-sponsored posse of sweat suit-clad gunman and young tattooed bikers probably now hunts me, not just Creeper. I’d guess no more than fifteen, twenty minutes behind me, too. I try to think of that when my leg muscles tell me to rest. If I could accomplish the task without getting wet, I wouldn’t stop to pee.
Twice I catch sight of the paved road I traveled with Mama Bones, Gianni, and Thomas last night, glimpses that tell me I’m definitely on a right course. Eventually I have to hit the Parkway. Five miles. Ten miles. I don’t know how far it was, nor how fast I can negotiate this scrub pine and fall-red poison oak, but I’m going in the right direction.
I decide against using Gianni’s prepaid cell phone. At least not just yet. I’m not much of a multitasker, and for now, moving as quickly, efficiently, and quietly through this forest deserves no less than one-hundred percent of my attention.
I’d equate the situation with parachute-jumping. Throw yourself out of an airplane, it’s probably a smart idea to focus on the rip cord.
Around noon, with a windy cloudy sky announcing the arrival of darker weather, I realize I have to rest. My heart and lungs can’t spread enough oxygen to counteract the exhaustion cramping my legs and back. Plus I’m already lying down.
Taking the first of an intended parade of slow, deep breaths, I notice bloody scratches now mark the backs of both my hands. Reminds me of the last time I tried to touch Susan’s breasts.
My blood still screams for oxygen but I hold my breath when I hear people whispering. Two, maybe three voices. Very close. Why didn’t I hear their footsteps?
Should I run for it? Or hide? Or piss my pants?
The wind picked up half an hour ago. The sky turned to charcoal over the last fifteen minutes. And now, although I guess it could be my stomach, to the south I hear a garbage-truck rumble of thunder.
Run or hide? A cloudburst makes the decision for me.
It’s midnight under Gianni’s black plastic. An undiluted kind of eerie darkness that makes me dizzy, uncertain of my direction or status. Kinda like waking up on Sunday with a naked stranger.
The wind pushes rain through the pines in a steady, unsettling loud hiss. Water splashes hard against the tarp that covers me. I smell pine resin and a sticky, fearful odor I finally connect to my own perspiration. I’m sweating like it’s the last day of the month and my commissions don’t match my bar tab.
Two sets of soft feet creep toward me across the wet, needle covered forest floor. My heart beat quickens, and the thumping is so intense, I worry the noise will give me away. Like Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.”
The gentle footsteps glide past, the searchers apparently seeing only black shadow beneath fallen pine trees, one stubby trunk leaning atop the other. I’d rather be in my apartment, sure, my bed in particular, but I am kinda proud of this hiding spot. Like when I was ten and built a cool fort.
Lightning cracks the air. When my ears stop ringing, the footsteps are gone.
It’s an hour or so later. The rain comes only in gusts now, peaking when the wind surges, beating like a hundred tom-toms against the dead wood and plastic over my head. The air inside my makeshift tent smells only of pine resin, not my stinky sweat.
I think my glands are empty.
My fingers grip another of Gianni’s gifts, that prepaid cell phone. I’m going to take a calculated risk and make one call. The calculation being, if I don’t make this call, I’m most likely going to die today or tomorrow among these sap-oozing pine trees.
I give the hospital operator Luis’s room number.
“Luis. How’s your head?”
“Austin? It is difficult to understand you. Is this perhaps a bad connection?”
“I’m whispering. I asked about the condition of your cabeza.”
“Oh. Si. Well...still attached to my neck, I am told. In fact I am being discharged as we speak. It is fortunate for me that you have called. Perhaps you could drive to the hospital and pick me up?”
I cough. “Uh...actually, Luis, I was kinda hoping you could pick me up.”