September 13, 2017

Fiction by Adam Matson: "The Clearing"

My fiction has appeared internationally in over twenty magazines including Day One, Straylight, Soundings East, The Bryant Literary Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Morpheus Tales, Infernal Ink Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Indiana Voice Journal. My novella, "The Leviathan of Plasticia," is slated for publication this fall.

The Clearing

Darren emerged from the thickly-wooded mountain path into a clearing with an old picnic table and saw a woman sitting between two standing men. He stopped and nodded hello. He was on his way down the mountain, and these were the first hikers he had encountered all day.
One of the men returned the nod. The woman looked at him. Darren immediately sensed there was something off about this trio. The men wore jeans and Timberland boots- not exactly hiking attire for late August. One was skinny and wore a white tank top with smears on it. The other was heavier, wearing a gray hoodie despite the heat. The skinny one had nodded.
The woman sat on the bench of the picnic table, the only one of the group dressed for hiking. She wore a jogging suit and trail-running shoes, carried a fanny pack and a water bottle. The wire of an iPod ran out of a band on her arm, like an I.V.
The woman’s lack of a smile made Darren uneasy. Slowly he took off his backpack and set it on the ground, unzipped it and produced a bag of gorp.
“You folks going up or down?” Darren asked.
“Just restin’,” said the man in the tank top.
“Hot as hell,” Darren commented. He extended the bag of gorp. The group did not acknowledge it. They looked to be about his age, late-20s maybe. The men had sunken, feral faces, the pale complexions and buzzed haircuts of city boys, alley rats who hung around bars in case there was a fight. The woman, Darren thought, looked suburban. Her hiking gear was the kind purchased at an upscale athletic store. She had blondish hair pulled into a ponytail. Her amber skin glistened with sweat.
“You all from around here?” Darren asked, which immediately struck him as sort of a stupid question. It was a state park. There were no towns of any size for miles.
The woman looked at him again, then glanced down at her shoes. She looked thirsty.
“Just visitin’,” said Tank Top.
The other man stared at nothing with the dead, sullen expression of a taxidermied kill. Darren got the feeling he could be standing two feet from the man, addressing him directly, and he would elicit no response. He also felt that he would not want to stand two feet from this man.
“Well, it gets hotter higher up, where the trees thin out,” Darren said. “You all heading up?”
“Maybe,” Tank Top said eventually.
Darren chewed his gorp and tried not to stare. He was not oblivious, only playing dumb. He knew the way young women looked at men they knew, men with whom they had a rapport. This was not the way the woman looked now. She kept glancing between her shoes and Darren’s chest, meeting his eyes in flitting dodges.
In the front pocket of his backpack there was a knife. Darren crouched down and made a show of repacking the gorp. He took a long sip from his water bottle. Quickly he fished the knife out of the backpack and slipped it into his pocket. Standing up, he realized his cell phone was in the front pocket too, and he should have grabbed that.
“Lookit,” Darren said, standing up to his full height, which was about five-nine. “If you don’t mind my asking: everything all right here?”
The woman looked into his eyes again and he clearly saw nervousness.
“We’re fine, man,” said Tank Top. “Just resting.”
Darren pointed at the woman’s feet, drawing her attention. “Twist your ankle, or something?”
“Um, no,” she said.
He’d gotten her to speak at least. “What’s your name?”
“Cody,” she said.
A boy’s name. Easy to remember.
“I’m Darren.” He looked to each of the men, grinning to relax them. They did not give their names. “So where’d you all come up from?”
Cody hesitated. “I’m from Canton,” she said.
“That’s not far.”
“I come up here to run.”
Darren nodded. “You guys from Canton too?”
Hoodie said nothing. Tank Top made an impatient clicking sound with his tongue, his Timberland nudging the dirt beside the picnic table. “Nah, man,” he muttered. Hoodie glanced at him, and he looked away.
Darren touched the pocket of his shorts where the knife was. He smiled at Cody. “Again, hope you don’t mind my asking, Cody, but do you actually know these guys?”
For a moment it seemed somehow hotter in the clearing. Everyone looked at Darren now. Darren’s mouth felt dry, and he took a drink from his water bottle to cover his quivering lips.
“I don’t know them,” Cody said in a low voice.
“Aw, what the fuck,” Tank Top mumbled.
This was about where Darren’s tough-guy movie references ran out. He had never been in a fight. Normally he was not a meddler. He came from the city, had learned to hone his indifference. He stepped back, widening his stance, dropped his arms to his sides.
“So what’s going on?” he asked.
“We’re just sittin’ here,” said Tank Top. “Mind your own fuckin’ business.”
“Yeah, maybe I should,” Darren agreed. “But this doesn’t look too legit to me.”
“The fuck you gonna do about it?”
“Well,” Darren said. “Maybe we don’t need to do anything. Maybe I’ll head on down, like I was going to, and you guys can stay, or head up. Cody, you can come with me, if you want, if you’ve finished your run,” he said to the woman.
She looked like she wanted to stand, but she made no move to. Her eyes kept darting to the man in the hoodie.
“You should go down,” said Tank Top.
Darren slowly reached down and picked up his pack, keeping all three of them in view.
“Maybe we should all go down together,” he said. “It is getting late in the afternoon.”
Tank Top shook his head and now Hoodie took a step forward. Darren watched as the bigger man pulled a nine-millimeter pistol from the front pocket of his sweatshirt.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Hoodie said, his voice sounding younger than he looked.
Darren took a step backward, raising his hands. “There’s no need for that, man. Come on, let’s just figure this out peacefully.”
Hoodie raised the gun and pointed it at Darren’s face. His expression was as blank and menacing as the dark hole in the gun barrel.
Cody turned her head away. Darren saw her wipe her eyes. The men watched him, saying nothing. Darren knew this was check-mate. He would have to run down the mountain and call for help.
“All right,” he said. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m heading down.”
He walked sort of side-ways along the trail until he was past the clearing. Out of range of the gun, he turned and hoofed it down the trail. He had no idea how far he was from the parking lot. As he ran he pulled his backpack off and fished his cell phone out of the front pocket. There was no signal.
After a few minutes he stopped, turned around. An idea occurred to him. It might be hours before law enforcement showed up here in the mountains. But he could still help Cody now. He lacked a weapon that could compete with the nine-millimeter. But he still had his wits.
Darren stepped off the trail and set his backpack down next to a tree. He ran through the thick brush into the woods, maybe fifty yards, out of sight of the trail. Then he turned uphill and back-tracked toward the clearing. He ran at first, then slowed down, fearing his footfalls would give him away.
The trees thinned out a little as he climbed, but he found a thick fallen trunk with an upturned spread of dirt-caked roots. Crouching behind this cover, he could see the clearing.
The woman was crying now. The men hovered over her. Hoodie held the gun against her head, and was saying something in a low mongrel voice, but Darren could not make out the words.
Darren felt around on the ground for stones, scraped a few out of the dark, upturned soil where the fallen tree’s root structure had been. He picked up a good-sized rock and hurled it toward the clearing.
The rock snapped through the bushes. The two men and Cody turned their heads. Another crack of foliage ruffled nearby.
“The fuck is that?” Tank Top muttered. He turned and glanced around at the bushes, looking for an animal.
Hoodie shielded his eyes and peered into the forest, seeing only trees. Another small crash sounded nearby. Then a rock bounced off the picnic table.
“What the fuck!?” Tank Top cried, picking a direction and shouting at it.
Darren crouched behind his cover. He could see their shapes moving around. Clearly they could not see him. He waited patiently, throwing rocks about every thirty seconds.
In the clearing Hoodie took a step toward the most recent crash, his gun pointed straight ahead.
“It must be that fucking hiker,” he mumbled.
“Aw, fuck this, man, let’s get the fuck outta here,” Tank Top said. “He’s seen us anyway. I ain’t doin’ any more time.”
Hoodie stared into the forest for another moment. Tank Top paced the clearing. Hoodie took a step toward Cody and pressed the gun against her head.
“No, please,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut.
“Don’t say a fuckin’ word about this,” Hoodie said, and then wordlessly he and Tank Top took off, hurrying down the trail.
Darren saw them leave. He pressed himself flat against the ground. Waited several minutes for them to make their way down. Then he stood up and hustled toward the clearing. Cody was still there, he could see, still sitting at the table. Darren’s mind was racing. They would probably have to bushwhack their way down. Following the trail they might run into the men again. They could hike down till they found the road, then flag down a car for help. At least Cody would be safe.

But that’s not the way it went down. Darren only thought of the idea to double-back and throw stones while lying in bed later during one of his increasingly frequent sleepless nights.
Instead he had run down the mountain with his heart pounding in his chest. When he reached the parking lot he got in his car and took off, not even sure where he was going. He stopped a few miles down the road to collect himself. Took a long drink of water and tried his phone. There was still no reception and he had to drive for fifteen minutes before he got a bar.
At the police station in Canton he gave a description of the two men. The police came up with composite facial images on an imaging program on their computer.
Cody’s body was found in a ravine the next day, naked, her clothes and things strewn throughout the woods. Many of her bones were broken as if she had been pushed or dropped. There was a gunshot wound in the back of her head, her various orifices sullied from forcible entry.
In his mind Darren rescued her a thousand times, each escapade more harrowing and heroic than the last. In some of the rescues he even had a gun, and he drew down on the thugs like Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Cody even became his lover sometimes.
But movies were never thrilling in the same way for Darren again. Nor were hikes in the mountains ever as pleasant. Nor did the feelings of cowardice and impotence ever fade completely, no matter how many beers he drank to wash down his regret.
And the two men from the clearing were never caught.

© Adam Matson

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