He ordered a 12 oz steak, bloody in texture, burned on the outside, baked potato and sour cream, refried beans, a little salad on the side, breakfast and dinner rolled into one. The waiter, a slight built man about the same age as Blane with a greyish complexion, took the order, finally asked about a drink, and he ordered a coke, after a moment added a beer.
‘Keeping the balance,’ he said with a guilty smile.
The waiter nodded, but didn’t smile back. Moments later he returned, the two drinks and a glass of ice water carefully balancing on a tray. He put the glasses on the table, hesitated, straightened then started to talk.
‘Me personally,’ his hand pointed with a stabbing motion at his chest while his eyes were large and clear, focused on Blane’s. ‘I don’t eat much meat, just what I kill myself. Go hunting in the woods, kill the boar, deer, rabbit whatever is in season and I catch a glimpse of. Kill it, clean shot, skin the warm carcass, gut it, there is blood everywhere and I have earned to eat it, fair and square. Would you kill a cow for that steak? People in the kitchen cut dead meat all day, they carry the smell home with them and when they return the next day the smell comes back with them.’ His voice was quiet and fast, like he had delivered the same speech a million times. ‘I reckon people ought to kill what they want to eat. I get your food.’ He turned away swiftly and was back minutes later carrying a steaming plate.
‘Enjoy,’ he said.
He stared at the blood that slowly oozed from the meat onto the plate, the dead cow starring at him from across a green field. Gingerly started, bits of potato and beans, crisp green salad leaves and finally sliced the meat, chewed the dry texture, a taste of blood filling his mouth. Then forgot about the mans talk, his hunger taking over, washing it down with ice cold beer, flavours mixed and became undistinguishable. Afterwards he ordered another bottle, leaned back, slow and heavy in movement now, the hunger stilled, the taste of cold beer cleaning his palette, the thought of dead cows gone. California, beef country populated by vegetarian hunters. When he left, he thought, he smelled the sea.
He traipsed down the road towards his car, but turned into a bar just before, took a seat on the long counter and ordered beer. There was a woman telling of adventures in Vegas, wild nights, drunk in the morning and drunk in the evening, cruising in big limousines, free drinks for the girls wherever they went. Onto a place called the Green Room, her pretend boyfriend trying to explain, the word swingers is mentioned, but it doesn’t ring a bell. When they get there, everyone is naked, there is touching and she imagines lustful moans to accompany the movements in the dark, felt quiet, kept her eyes low intimidation rising, and by the end of the night played pool, with her clothes gone, there was no recollection how it had happened.
She laughed, her voice loud and carrying, but only a handful of people there to listen.
When the beer started to slow his mind he staggered from the bar, down the street towards his car, folded his arms over the steering wheel, his head resting forward, drifting into light sleep till his bladder woke him. In the midst of the night he stepped out to relieve his urges behind a bush where there was none, the air cool against his skin. Half awake when the motor came on, backed off onto the main road, further south, then off the road into a clearing, another slash against a tree and into the back of the car, bedded his head on a pile of dirty clothes, thought laundry and fell asleep.
He woke when thunder shook the car, lightning illuminated the eerie landscape that looked soft through the heavy rain. A sock lodged against his face provided an added layer of odour to the weather. Eyes puffy with a crumpled expression on his face, he pushed himself up, glanced through the windows, then moved forward, squeezing through the seats and into the cabin. Water eased the stale taste in his mouth. The inside of the car felt damp, the windows steamed up. Lightning moved above and across, shadows of trees projecting against the car and into Blane’s eyes.
For a time he just sat forcing his eyes through the pelting rain, thoughts returning to the sobbing screams of a woman.
There was a roar from beyond the thunder, crawling closer as he took to the road. Weather dictating the speed at which to travel, hazard lights flashing, the car went slow. The roar grew louder like a giant engine in competition with the elements, turning a corner there came the flicker of lights drawn out in single file, fifteen maybe twenty of them. Sudden panic and bewilderment before he realized them to belong to bikes, Hell’s Angels or Cochise Riders or whatever they called themselves. The first one passing in his late fifties, clad in waterproofs, a wet greying beard in the wind, going slow, followed by another and another and so on.
The noise was fantastic, thunder no longer audible and Blane mesmerized, stared into the blinding lights as they drove up and by, one by one, the number of lights shrinking till there were only a few, and once they had passed, thunder returned with a vengeance. He ducked into his seat as the cataclysmic force made its presence felt, drove right into the centre of it and then the rain eased, turned to drizzle and stopped.
The silence another extreme, the odd noise of distant rumble, drops falling from leafy trees, the sky lightening, the air cool and clean. As if he and the weather had bonded, gone through the same climax, and come out exhausted at the other end, cleansed and revived.
A sudden excitement took hold in Blane, he felt like a lone warrior, his inner strength grown and somehow ready. Sped up and slowed almost immediately pulling of the road and into a bay, the soil giving way under the heavy cars tires, rolled to a halt and killed the motor. The sound of birds, from the dense forest as he wound down the window. His nostrils filling with the nutty smell of decomposing matter, a hint of pine and eucalyptus, the saturated soil, mist stirring and starting to rise as the sun began to touch the ground.
He sighed, a big mournful sigh that released the tension from his shoulders. His hand sought the lever on the door, the mechanics giving a solid click as the door unlocked and opened. Swung his legs outside in a swift much practised motion and stepped from the car. Water squeezing from underneath his feet as if stepping on a giant sponge. Squelching sound as he walked on, somewhat drawn towards the denseness of the forest. Vaporizing moisture sitting on arms and face, his hair dampening, drops falling.
He stood still, listening at the dripping of water and the cautious singing of birds, noticed how drops slid from leaf to leaf, finally sitting heavy in a small puddle till the weight would be too much, the leaf bent again splashing the water through midair and to the ground, the hungry sponge sucking it up with a hollow thud.
Blane turned for a reassuring glance at the car, before venturing further. Whole trees gave when he stepped on them, the rotten wood melting under his steps, revealing a million bugs, exposed and disturbed by the light they moved quick, curling around each other in the process, heads being snatched, bodies disappearing inside bigger ones, the food chain revitalised again. Blane stood and watched as they scrambled for cover, travelling deeper into the decaying layers of forest ground. He was looking for a place to sit, a rock or a stump that would hold his weight. He liked the moments when nothing mattered, and he merged with his surroundings, blended with nature, became one, anxiety eased away.
Stared at years of growth and decay under his feet, the emergence of centipedes, a path of ants, the air cool and sweet from the rain. This was what life was about and given the chance he would live out here, of the forest as much as could be, trade some like the first settlers had done. Respect, he thought, reached for a cigarette, inadvertently spoiling the sweetness of air, still marvelling about tones of green he could see without moving his head, more than a city had of greying concrete. But with him the city somehow intruded, disturbed the delicate balance that kept microcosms alive over years and since forever.
He listened to a birds repeating call, exhaling smoke from inside coughing lungs, kept listening to slight nuances changing. Did the call improve, was the bird rehearsing?
A queer thought.
Then the breaking of wood somewhere close, desperate flutter in the trees surrounding, head spun, tracing birds, tracing movement, silence. Blane’s body slowed, the breathing shallowed, the sound of his heart in his ears like the drums at the beginning of Ellington’s Oclupaca. But unlike in the song he was hoping to silence the beat and gain his calm again. The birds had gone, replaced by an eerie calm, cicadas chirping from somewhere, the sound of their violins penetrating the thicket, creeping into his mindset with sharp persistence.
Another twig snapping.
His body, frozen in a cowering position, ears picking up crackles that were no longer there. Listened to the distance, for a noise, steps. His body was fearful to turn, remembered the games he had played as a kid in the greens behind their house, never far from sight, always within earshot, a neighbour kid by his side encouraging each other. Now it was the thought of the car that was soothing, the comforts and familiar smells, the hum of the motor.
Sudden movement to his left he thought and his head spun in wild motion, but there was nothing. He was slow to get to his feet, inched backwards holding an invisible weapon where he had held one as a kid, feet seeking hold on treacherous ground, stumbled as he turned to gain speed, somehow panic of the unknown gripping him. Ran, branches beating into his face, he twisted and turned to turn again.
Then a shadow from somewhere, lashing out with surprising force, pushing him, flipping him over, explosions echoing in his ears and the final steps to escape, with legs no longer working, instead just crumbled and collapsed in on themselves, body swaying, the noise in his ears rising, as he fell, hands by his side and nothing but shrubs to break his fall. The stone on the ground knocking out his front teeth splintering the upper jaw, but he no longer felt. Tasted blood, and nutty ground, mixing sensations, a smell of forest his final perception.
His chest torn and ripped, the ribcage exposed.
And somehow the bloodied face was smiling.
Once in bed they both twisted and turned, till Luke’s regular breathing was audible, but Louise’s mind kept turning.
She had taken another test that same day.
It had made her more pregnant.
When she fell asleep she dreamed of Ellie holding a baby and telling her how happy she was to be a mother, Louise kept wanting to interrupt that it was her who was pregnant, but she never got around to it.
She woke early the next morning, rose and prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the idea at first a delight, but the smell of frying bacon soon put her off the food. Silence sat heavy inside the car as she manoeuvred the truck to the cable station.
‘The steering, it pulls to the right,’ he said before getting out.
‘I know,’ she responded eyes on the wheel and the door banging behind him. ‘Luke, I need a hug, please. We talk tonight, I make it all good again, please.’
His arms came through the car window, gathered her up, and held her. When they let go he walked away without another word.
‘Oh, god,’ Louise thought, ‘why is life so complicated.’ She watched as Luke walked up the ramp and disappeared through the door, before she put the truck in gear to aim for the forest.
Once alone, relief was immediate, a little over an hour ahead lay the sort of silence she was craving, enough to fill a lifetime and have a clear thought. Away from any living soul, she could pretend to be anywhere. Like a sailor after months at sea, to find steady ground was all she wanted.
The landscape slowly changed, from flats, to valley and finally climbing the soft slope of hills, the road curling and curving, trees appeared one by one then by the dozen, till there were too many to count. Knew the way from memory, having driven the distance a few times. Another ten minutes and she would turn off, leave the car and then silence would be hers.
A silver grey Cherokee, older model, its New York plates screaming at her in its familiar colouring, suddenly turned the corner ahead, passed too fast for her to raise a greeting and was gone before she had time to check the mirror.
Minutes later she turned into her haven, sat for a moment listening to the infrequent crackle of the cooling motor, listened to the forest, its volume slowly growing. Wedged her shoulder against the door to push it open. Reached for her bag then stood in the forest. A long sigh, as her shoulders collapsed in on themselves and steady steps walked her away from the car.
She could feel energies recover as straying leafs touched arms, stumbled, twig here, branch there, a thick root crawling across the paths, a light-footed leap carried her. Green growing dense from the summer rains, brushed aside a leafy bush. Then spotted red, splattered over leafs her hand covered in it she halted, gasped and stared. Next she scrambled, reaching for the cell phone without reception, while she hurried back to the car. Her eyes everywhere at once and not seeing anything. At the car she pulled the green dented door with force, but as often the door was stuck, pulled again, throwing all her weight into it and falling backwards with the door swinging open. Was quick to get up and climb inside the truck, pulling the door close behind her and pushing the button to lock it. Turned her bag upside down on the long leather benching, snatching the keys from it and praying for the motor to start. The car jerked back, swerved into the road and accelerated. The phone still without a signal, Louise without breath.
‘Come on, come on,’ she kept muttering pressing numbers, pushing buttons.
There was no one behind her.
She slowed, when she saw the bars on the display fill and the name of a provider appear. Pushed the buttons hard and waited.
‘911, which service?’
‘Police,’ she said and realized at once she had no idea where exactly she was, hung up and checked the rear mirror. Called Luke next, he would know, if he wasn’t stuck behind a camera, just pick it up she thought. And he did.
‘Hey gorgeous, what’s up?’
‘There is a dead man in the forest, and I called the police, but I don’t know where I am,’ she was screaming, ‘it’s were we stopped when we went camping where we parked the car, can you tell them I just want to go home, I’m pregnant.’
‘I just want to go home, I’m tired.’
‘You are pregnant?’
‘How? I mean since when, how do you know?’
‘Just call the police, Luke. Fuck. There is a dead man,’ she shouted tears finally bursting, ‘I just want to go home.’
‘Where are you?’
‘Not far, and the fucking door wouldn’t open, I just walked and then my hands were bloody and I saw him. Now I just want to go home. Please.’