[New to the story? Let the barbed tentacles of the previous chapter insert themselves directly through your ears and into your brain.]
And lying in the back of Ugly John’s truck on my way to who knows where, I couldn’t help but think that I deserved this. I had broken Frog’s trust, betrayed our friendship, and now I was paying for it.
It was at least half an hour of bumping and jolting down those rough dirt roads before the truck finally came to a stop. Ugly John opened the tailgate and slashed the ties on our legs with an old pocket knife. “Up and at ’em, you two.”
I groaned and tried to sit up, but that ain’t as easy as it sounds when your arms are tied behind your back. Eventually I settled on squirming out like an inch-worm. When I got my feet on the ground I saw that there was a battered old RV parked up the road from where we were. It looked to my eyes like the one Walt and Jesse use in that show Breaking Bad? You watch that? Good show.
Beyond that there really wasn’t much out here to see but trees, trees and more trees. At least that’s what I thought at first. But as Ugly John barked at us to move toward the RV, I noticed something strange about the patch of trees just off the road from where we were.
There was a circular clearing there; and when I say circular I don’t mean roughly roundish, I mean it looked like someone had staked a string to the ground, traced out a fifty foot radius, and said, No trees here. Got it? and all the trees had just decided that that was maybe not a great place for them to grow.
But even then, I might not have noticed it, but for what was inside the circle. Because the ground was flat and black like a burned pancake. And there was something else, something beyond seeing, something I can’t quite describe. That space, the circle between the trees was…bulging. That’s the only word I can think of for it. It was something I felt so strongly I almost could see it.
I wanted to stand there and stare, as if by staring I might decipher the meaning of that place, but John grunted and hit me in the back with the but of his gun. “Stop gawking and get moving.”
We climbed up into the Winnebago and John made us sit on a couch that was mostly holes. He rested the barrel of the rifle on the back of an old wooden chair and pulled out a cell phone with his free hand. He dialed a number with his free hand and when whoever it was answered he said, “Come out to the Circle as quick as you can. You’re going to want to see this.”
He snapped the phone shut, and sat down, straddling the chair. “You know we’ve been looking for you,” he said, nodding in my direction. “Couldn’t catch the first scent of where you were. And then, outa nowhere you stroll into our hands.” He chuckled to himself as if this were immensely funny, and lowered the gun to the floor.
I wanted to ask him why he wanted to find me so badly, but with the tape over my mouth all I could do was wonder.
I was about to try to make myself as comfortable as possible on the couch when suddenly I felt movement at my side. Almost before I could register what had happened Angie had jumped to her feet and lashed out with a wicked-looking kick that connected with Ugly John’s face, snapping his head back into the kitchen counter behind him.
He screamed out in pain and reached for the gun, but Angie kicked it away from him. He tried to lunge for the place it had fallen, but by this time I had finally gotten in sync with what was happening and tried to get up and help Angie.
Unfortunately I misjudged my first step and found myself teetering off balance. With my hands behind my back I couldn’t catch myself, so instead I aimed my fall at Ugly John, my torso slamming down on top of his. I heard the wind go out of his lungs with an OOF.
Meanwhile Angie had kicked the gun even further toward the front of the RV and while John struggled to get out from under me she sat at the front passenger seat and reached down to pass her zip-tied hands down over her legs. When she had her hands in front of her, she ripped the duct tape from her mouth, and then snatched up the rifle and trained it on Ugly John’s head.
Ugly John just kept yelping over and over, “Get him offa me, Get him offa me,” which turned out to be fairly difficult given the narrow confines of the RV and the fact that my hands were still tied behind my back. When I was up Angie made John sit on the couch while I tried to replicate her maneuver with the zip-ties myself.
When she had done it it had looked easy, a smooth fluid motion taking up no more than a few seconds, but when I tried it it took substantially longer. It took more than a minute of squirming and squeezing my arms down and over my legs before I finally got my hands in front of me.
“Go back to his truck,” she told me. “Cut yourself free and then find something to tie him up with. Hurry.”
Cutting through the zip-tie turned out to be pretty simple. I had seen an old hacksaw in the back of the truck, and I managed to hold that between my knees and cut through the plastic tie with the blade. Getting something to tie John up with was trickier. A quick search of the truck bed revealed no rope or tape or anything else we could use to keep him contained, but a flash of inspiration and a few swipes of the hacksaw later and I had a good length of nylon seat belt material from the passenger side of the truck.
Angie seemed impatient, as I tied John up. Once he was secured I went through his pockets and took his cell phone, a big folding pocket knife and some keys which I jangled and said, “Alright, let’s get this show on the road.” Only when I sat in the driver’s seat of the RV none of the keys would fit the ignition.
“Hurry it up,” Angie called from the back of the RV.
“No dice,” I called back and explained the situation.
She slammed her hand down on the table and said something very unladylike, followed by, “There’s got to be a key around here somewhere.”
John laughed. “Even if you could find the key, this thing hasn’t run in years,” he said.
“What about the truck?” I asked.
“We’ll stick out like a sore thumb in that smurf-colored hunk of junk,” Angie retorted.
“This thing isn’t exactly low profile either,” I pointed out. “And I don’t know if you noticed or not, but the tires on this thing look about dry-rotted out. He’s telling the truth about it not running. Now come on, we’re losing time here.”
Angie seemed to consider my words for a moment. Then she turned to Ugly John and pressed the end of the gun’s barrel into his neck hard. “Who’s coming?” she demanded. “How long till they get here?”
John just laughed. “You know I got cancer right?”
“And I should care why?”
“This body’s not going to be good for much longer anyway. You pull that trigger and I start looking for a new shell a little earlier is all.”
“Look, we shouldn’t be wasting time like this,” I said. “ The longer this guy babbles on about reincarnation or whatever the longer it’s gonna take us to get out of here.”
Angie glared down at him for several long and tense seconds, before she finally pulled the barrel away from his neck. “Fine,” she said, “Have it your way.
We didn’t want to take the risk of untying his feet, but it turned out this wasn’t too much of a problem, because when we got our arms under his shoulders it turned out Ugly John was surprisingly light. You couldn’t really tell it to look at him, but the old guy was painfully thin. I’m talking Christian Bale in The Machinist thin. My whole hand closed easily over his upper arm, and between the two of us we had no trouble dragging him back to the truck.
We tossed him in the back, and I’ll admit, in spite of everything, I felt the thrill of poetic justice coursing through my veins as I climbed into the driver’s seat and cranked the big truck to life. Angie slammed the tailgate closed and clambered up beside me, glancing back through the back window.
I put the truck in gear and lurched through a jerky three-point turn, before pointing the truck’s wide nose at the long stretch of dirt road ahead of us and putting the pedal down. The diesel engine roared like a demon and the truck accelerated down the bumpy track. I glanced back in the rear view mirror and caught sight of the strange circular clearing once more before it disappeared around a bend.
Then I looked over at Angie. “I could seriously murder burger right now. Like one of those triple-decker monsters they sell at Hardy’s?”
“Yeah, well, don’t count your chickens before they’re eggs. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
I laughed, and she gave me a strange look.
“Its funny because its true figuratively and…literally.”
Angie didn’t answer.
So I shut my mouth. But my brain kept going at a million miles a minute. And what it was thinking was this: This isn’t what I expected. She’s not what I expected. It wasn’t even the unexpected fury I had seen in her eyes, the sudden certainly that she was fully willing to pull the trigger of that rifle and kill a helpless old man in cold blood. It was…everything. I had made up this version of her in my head, but the real thing turned out to be nothing like that. There was no…what was the word? Rapport. Connection. Harmony.
Of course the logical part of my brain told me it was stupid to think that way at a time like this. These were extenuating circumstances, more extreme than anything most people would ever go through in their lives. But then a little voice spoke up and said, Yes, but don’t you think that you’re far more likely to see what she’s really made of under these circumstances?
I didn’t like to think like this. After all, I’d been in love with this girl for more than a year. And the voice answered, Sure. ‘Love.’ You mean like half the male population of the country ‘loves’ Kim Kardashian?
No. Not like that. I wasn’t that shallow. Angie was different. She was special.
Except, in the end, I couldn’t even convince myself of that. I don’t guess there’s much point in trying to convince you.
I might have brooded about the situation more, but there was another thought that demanded my attention. Because I couldn’t get out of my head what John had said to Angie back in the RV. About how his body was just a shell. It made me think of what Frog had said about the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, how convinced he had been that Karl wasn’t really Karl, that he had been inhabited, possessed by some other intelligence. And now, thinking of the look in John’s eyes when Angie had pressed the gun against his neck, the utter lack of fear reflected there, it made me wonder.
The rational part of my mind insisted that it didn’t really mean anything. It certainly wasn’t a good reason to run off thinking Frog had been right about this. Because there was a kind of implicit understanding that if Frog had been right about that, maybe he had been right about other things. I couldn’t accept that. Because if I did it would mean revisiting my assumptions, restating the axioms from which grew the framework of my sanity.
So instead my brain cast about for alternate explanations, rational ways to explain the weirdness I had witnessed in the last few days.
You’re probably rolling your eyes now. Maybe you’ve guessed this all along. “Of course,” you said, “The skeptic with the friend making wildly improbable predictions always turns out to be wrong.”
Well aren’t you clever? But as it so happens it’s a little different being inside the story than looking at it from your end. We like these stories where the nutjob turns out to be right because he’s the outsider, and secretly deep down, we all think we’re outsiders, brilliant but misunderstood prophets, ignored by a blind and overly rational world.
But the truth is you’re not unique; you’re not special; and you wouldn’t have been any more likely to believe Frog’s hogwash than I was, so lets just cut the clever self-aware B.S. shall we?
My thoughts were interrupted by a fork in the road. It stopped and tried to decide which way to turn. I looked over at Angie. “Any ideas?”
She didn’t answer. Instead she wrenched the door open with a squeak and jumped out. She crouched down, examining one road, and then the other, and then jumped back in the cab. “That way,” she said, pointing left.
“Um…not that I don’t trust you, but…how do you know?”
“The tracks,” she said. “Fresh that way. Nobody’s driven that other road for at least two days. Now put it in drive, and let’s get out of here.”
“What would I do without you?”
She considered for a moment then answered, “I was going to say you would have gotten caught by whoever it was at the trailer, but then I remembered you would have already been mugged and left for dead by those guys on the road. So…not much.”
Her words stung, hard. “Look I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said.
“You didn’t get me into this,” she argued. “I came along of my own free will. I got me into this. And I can get me out.”
I turned away from her and looked at the road, too ashamed of myself to say anything.
After a long silence she added, “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have taken this out on you. It’s just…its been such a long day. And I’m still not sure how it will end.”
“It’s fine. I get it.”
She put a hand on my shoulder. “No, you don’t. It’s not-” but then her fingers tightened and she said, “What’s that?”
I turned and looked up ahead to see another car coming our way up around one of the bends in the road. It was one of those funky looking hybrid cars with the oversized backside, an uncommon enough sight on the street of our little hicktown, but here in the woods it looked positively alien. The car ahead of us slowed, as if considering what to make of us.
“That’s them,” Angie breathed. “That’s whoever was on the other end of that call.” She looked over at me and asked, “Why are you slowing down?”
“I don’t want to hit them.”
“Whoever it is is with him,” Angie replied jerking her thumb toward the back of the truck. “Odds are good they’re not coming for a friendly chat.”
The distance between us and the hybrid was closing fast now. I got close enough to see the driver of the car, a woman with dark hair, her eyes widening in surprise when she saw us in the cab of the truck.
A moment later the hybrid’s brakes slammed on and the car skidded to a halt. By then there wasn’t more than fifty feet between us, and I had started to slow down to avoid running the smaller car over when the front tires of the car kicked into reverse spewing dirt out in front of it and propelling the car backwards in the direction it had come.
“Do NOT let her get away,” Angie growled.
I punched the accelerator and the gap between us and the hybrid started to shrink, but then, just as I thought we would easily close in on it, the woman in the hybrid jammed the brakes again, turning her wheel hard left, and the car skidded around till it was almost facing the opposite direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Angie doing something with John’s confiscated cell phone, but I was too busy trying to catch up with the woman in the hybrid to take much notice.
Even with the gas pedal pressed fully to the floor the heavy truck seemed slow to respond, and I could tell the smaller car was gaining ground, cutting corners far faster than we could in the bulky truck, accelerating until it was almost out of our sight. I was ready to give up the chase as hopeless, but then the gap started to close again. I tried to figure out what had happened. Was the hybrid having engine problems?
One hundred feet, fifty feet twenty feet. We were right on the hybrid’s bumper when Angie screamed, “LOOK OUT!”
Just then the smaller car swerved hard to the right and I looked up and saw what I had been missing by focusing on the fleeing car’s bumper. Up head of us, the trees dropped away and the road curved right to avoid the dark waters of the river that ran through this forest.
I hit the brakes and tried to turn. The truck started to respond, but not enough.
When the wheels hit the edge of the raised edge of the clay road the world turned itself upside down.
Earth and sky tumbled like clothes in a laundromat washer.
A crash. Then a splash.
An icy shock: the black water of the river rushing in through the window.