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Vol. 4, No. 1

Stranger
by Peter Rock

Melissa gets up on her knees, then begins pulling the damp pine needles from the bare skin of her ass and thighs. Dave had put his shirt down, under her, but somehow she'd slid off it. Now he stands ten feet away, peeling the condom loose, tying the open end in a knot.
    The whole time he was on top of her, a swarm of tiny insects hanging over his right shoulder, she kept the woods in her peripheral vision. Lying down in the clearing had been her idea; once they'd started, though, she was unable to relax. She expected hunters in wool coats to step out from the trees--her skin trembled, anticipating their cold shadows.
    "That was nice," Dave says. "Different." He stands in the sun, naked except for his hiking boots and glasses. He's not yet thirty-five, but there's already gray in the hair on his chest; his legs are too skinny for the thickness of his trunk.
    "Yes," she says, stepping into her underwear, her shorts.
    "About ready to head back?"
    "How much daylight do we have?"
    "No idea," he says. "There's the sun." He points at it.
    Melissa shivers as she follows him back under the pines, into the shadows. They've traveled all the way across the country for three days of this, and they both pretend to enjoy it more than they do. She's always relieved to pack up on the last day; the rest of the time, she wonders what it would take for something to really go wrong. She knows Dave feels the same way, even as he struts ahead, whistling, the used condom swinging back and forth in his hand.
    Stepping into the sun, they start across a meadow. Grasshoppers strike her bare arms and legs, their instantaneous arrivals and departures like tiny electrical shocks; she points out a bare bush, its branches just sticks, and someone has covered the tips with spent shotgun shells--they look like red and orange fingers, and when the wind blows it seems many bright hands are either waving her closer or warning her away.
    Melissa and Dave climb a small rise and step back onto the rutted dirt road. Holding hands, they start down the road, toward the cabin; soon, they come to where a sign has been nailed straight into a tree. Sap the color of maple syrup bleeds down the bark, dark bugs stuck there. In red paint, crooked letters say, I'LL NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. The area around the sign bears no scars or clues; the sign doesn't even offer an arrow. The first time they passed it, they wondered at the message; now, hours later, they still can't make sense of it.
    "I guess this is just a day of signs," Dave says.
    "That seems to be the case," she says.
    Early that morning, on the highway, they passed a semitrailer, and high above, in the window, the driver had placed a white sign reading, WHY NOT FLIRT? LIFT YOUR SHIRT! Melissa had laughed, and Dave told her to go ahead. She wished he had meant it, but she knew he didn't; he likes to think of himself as smoother than that, the kind of man women appreciate, more sensitive than the men he works with. He is a college football coach--not the head coach, but in charge of the quarterbacks--and it's a rough bunch, men who greet each other by asking how they're hanging and then grabbing to check. How's your wife and my kids? they say. At night, Dave often tells her of them, trying to make himself look good. Secretly, she sometimes wishes he were more like them. She wanted to pull up her shirt this morning, flash her breasts through the windshield, make the trucker blow his horn.

 

~

The cabin is an A-frame, tall and thin, a cow skull wired over the doorway, fake Indian symbols painted around it. Melissa has a week's break from dental school, and it's off-season for Dave. He found the cabin in a guidebook--no running water or electricity, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, $15 a night, in the middle of nowhere. He is proud of the bargain. At the airport, they rented a four-wheel-drive truck, then followed the topographical maps, struggled along the logging roads. Every time a stone shot up or a branch reached out, Dave pulled over and checked for scratches or dings. She told him to keep driving--either the truck was scratched or it wasn't.
    Now he is cooking on the camping stove, cursing it. They're back from the hike, inside the cabin, where all the windows are plastic, scratched with initials, crosshatched; mouse droppings and melted wax cover the shelves and floor. Wooden knobs stick out from walls and rafters, and Dave's hung up everything that could possibly be hung. He's cooking freeze-dried lime-mango chicken. Watching him, Melissa feels an uneasy edge, almost like a headache's coming but not quite arriving, just a dull pain creeping up the back of her skull. Maybe the cabin's not well enough ventilated--the gas lantern's on, as well as the camping stove--but she knows it's not that.
    "This food is vacuum-packed," Dave says, reading the label. "Like the meals astronauts eat."
    "That's supposed to make us feel how?" she says. "Good? You'd hope we could do a little better, down here with gravity and oxygen and everything."
    "You'd think so," he says agreeable. He drops the foil packet into the boiling water, then picks up the camera and begins rewinding the film. Popping the lid off a plastic film canister, he spills cinnamon into the camera, open on his lap. "Damn. My fault. Should have labeled that--stupid way to pack spices." He turns over the camera, shakes it, blows into it.
    Melissa reaches to take a notebook from a shelf. Since she married Dave, she thinks, he's become more willing to own up to his mistakes, to show his weaknesses and limitations; he believes this makes her respect him more. If she lets him see her impatience, he'll only laugh, make a joke about her mean streak.
    "Maybe we'll eat film in the oatmeal tomorrow morning," he says. "Just kidding. I saved some of the cinnamon."
    She opens the notebook, which is full of comments from people who have stayed in the cabin before. The handwriting varies from children's to adults', in black and blue and red ink, magic marker.
    What a salvation this is. John and Busker (our Alsatian) have gone looking for water for swimming. I can see them, down below. I feel at peace.
     Someone backed into the outhouse, but that was B4 we got here. 6" snow + elk down in the flats.
    To her, there's something distasteful about the messages, a combination of showing off and the pathetic desire to be remembered, to leave a mark.
     Don't you just feel lucky and blessed? Mornings here are so beautiful.
    Often at night when I'm in town I can hardly believe this place exists or that there's people in it, like it closes up and folds away when I'm not here. I almost want to come check my special place.

 

~

She awakens hours later, upstairs in the cabin, on the air mattress. Their mummy bags are zipped together, Dave's legs pressing hot against hers. Moonlight shines in through a tall, triangular window, the rafters slanting darkly overhead. Dave's hands, on the pillow, smell of cooking gas. Rolling over, she looks closely at his face, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, his thick eyebrows, scattered whiskers. She certainly loves him, despite himself; it's easy to love him when he's asleep.
    Then she hears something. Outside. Footsteps, on the loose gravel of the drive. They stop, as if to trick her, then begin again, heavy and slow. She tries to see through the window, but the plastic is scratched and cloudy, and the sounds are coming from around the side of the cabin. Now she hears a low moaning, perhaps slurred words.
    She pulls herself from the bag without waking Dave and crawls along the wooden floor, to the square hole where the ladder stretches down. She wears a long flannel shirt. The rungs of the ladder are sharp against her bare feet. Downstairs, she ducks at the last moment, just missing the darkly hanging lantern. She opens the door.
    It's lighter outside. Standing still, she hears no sound. She steps down from the porch, and then there's a motion, over where the truck is parked. She doesn't move; in her hand, she holds a thick branch, someone's walking stick. She considers waking Dave, but she knows she's the one to handle a situation like this--he would only complicate it.
    Whoever is out there is hiding on the other side of the truck, a dark figure visible through the windows. Melissa holds her breath. The light rises from all surfaces; it seems to cast no shadows. The air is cool, the smell of the pines sharper, yet fainter, without the sun to warm the needles. At first, only the head sticks out, then the two sharp bumps of shoulders. Melissa steps closer, to get a clearer view. The cow turns its neck, rubs its jaw back and forth on the hood of the truck. It wheezes, stomps its hoof.
    Melissa holds out her hand as if she has something to offer, as if she is no threat, and the cow seems to be frozen there, waiting for her. They are only ten feet apart when it jerks its head away and shuffles into the trees, hardly lifting its feet, kicking gravel as it goes.
    The light is thick and soft around Melissa, and there's the faint sound of something like dark wings in the night, the nervous twitching of nocturnal creatures. In the morning she'll try to explain this to Dave. She promises herself she won't write about it in the notebook.

 

~

She has slept at least another hour when the knocking begins, someone rapping at the door, pausing, then beginning again. She shakes Dave until his eyes come open.
    "It's your turn," she says.
    "What?"
    "Something's outside."
    The knocking resumes, now more impatient.
    "That's not a cow," she says.
    "What are you talking about?" Dave sits up, hits his head on a rafter. "Damn." He rubs above his ear, kicks his legs free from the sleeping bag.
    From downstairs comes the sound of the door swinging open, its bottom rasping along the floor, then uneven footsteps, something kicked against a wall.
    "Hello?" It's a woman's voice, straight through the floor beneath them, less than three feet away.
    "Hello," Dave says.
    "We got a little problem up the road."
    Melissa wants to sleep. The sound of the voice--shrill, demanding, wide awake--irritates her.
    "We could use a little help. My husband's hurt, and it's not so easy for me to move him around."
    "Did you call someone?" Dave says.
    "I'm calling you. How would I call anyone? I don't know where you're from, but out here when a person asks for help it's because they need it."
    In the silence, Melissa watches Dave think; he's trying to decide what to do, and she can tell he feels her watching him. He wants to make the right decision.
    "Am I going to have to come up there?" the woman says.

 

~

The woman drives, the truck jostling and creaking through the ruts. Dave sits next to her, watching the single headlight's illumination. They've passed the painted sign twice, and he suspects they're circling, backtracking, that the woman is in some kind of shock. She wears a red bandanna around her head. The skin on her face looks weathered in the dim light, her eyes small and round. She told him her name is Nancy; she's been silent since, driving, her long, thin fingers tight around the steering wheel. He feels her looking at him, but every time he turns toward her she's squinting through the windshield. He wonders what kind of problem it was--he'd assumed it was a car accident, but here she is with the vehicle.
    "Was your husband conscious when you left him?"
    "He was."
    Dave holds the small, plastic emergency first-aid kit on his lap; when he bought it, three weeks ago, Melissa said it was a waste of money. She had stayed behind at the cabin, though Nancy seemed certain that they'd both be needed. Dave assured her it would be all right. He could feel Melissa turning stubborn.
    "Getting close," Nancy says, leaning forward against the wheel.
    In the dashboard, the glass is broken, and the speedometer doesn't even have a needle. There's a dark, rectangular cave of wires where the radio had been. The truck rises over a gentle curve and then two headlights shine, off to the left, hidden back in the trees. Nancy slows and eases the truck over a small ditch, onto a hidden road; they keep on moving, slowly, under the trees, as if the single headlight nudges the trunks aside to make room.
    "Fool," she says, squinting. She parks and leaves the truck running, twenty feet from the pair of headlights.
    A man steps out of the trees, into the lights. He is tall, with a thick, dark beard, a tangle of hair around his head. He wears a flannel shirt, suspenders. He's already talking, his hands up to slow her, when Nancy opens the door.
    "I kept the lights on, like you said to, and he just walked into them and stood there, five minutes, staring at me, just asking me to put him down."
    "Quiet," Nancy says.
    "Is there an accident here?" Dave says. He sees the blood on the man's hands.
    "You stay in the truck," Nancy says, slamming the door.
    He watches through the windshield as the two of them walk a short distance away. What he took for headlights, he realizes, are actually two round halogen lamps, propped up on stones, a few feet apart; there's no other vehicle. It's clear that Nancy and the man are arguing, but he can't hear them. The man is pointing at the truck, back at the road, and Nancy's pointing into the woods. Turning, Dave looks in that direction, behind him, where the lamps are shining. Something large and red is hanging there, from the branch of a tree. It's a body, a bloody body. He narrows his eyes, trying to focus. It's some kind of animal, he decides. A deer, antlers almost resting on the ground, front hooves stretching down; the skin has been peeled off the flanks and hangs, doubled over the shoulders.
    He's still looking back when the truck's door opens.
    "Get out," Nancy says.

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