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Vol. 4, No. 1

Stranger
by Peter Rock

~

Dave stands holding the first-aid kit, watching the truck drive away. Behind him, the man watches, too, holding a rifle in one hand and a long knife in the other. He must be over six and a half feet tall, pushing three hundred pounds, at least forty years old.
    "I guess she went after Melissa," Dave says. "And they'll come back."
    The man doesn't answer.
    "We don't really have much with us--you could even take the truck, you know," Dave says. "It's rented. We got all the insurance on it and everything."
    Above, between the trees, stars shine down. The two lamps still blare into the trunks and branches, lighting the red carcass of the deer. The man clears his throat, but doesn't say anything. After a moment, he takes a few steps and stands next to a plastic storage locker that must have fit in the back of the pickup; he hits it with the butt of the rifle and it echoes.
    "Sit here," he says. "I'm not going to tie you up, because if you took off running, that would be a stupid decision. Where'd you go? Know what I mean?"
    Dave sits on the locker, waiting, thinking of the map. The nearest town is forty miles away, farther. Now the man returns to his skinning; he leans the rifle against a tree, pulls the skin out with his left hand, and cuts it free with the knife. The deer twists only a little.
    "My name's Dave."
    The man turns slowly, steps halfway back, closing the distance between them. There's blood on the knife, dark on his hands.
    "You can call me, let's see--how about Henry?"
    "You know," Dave says, "you should have had me go along, talk to Melissa. That probably would've made it easier."
    Henry is skinning again. His boots are huge, camouflage.
    This is real, Dave is thinking. This is actually happening. He can already hear himself telling the story, and he almost wants it to turn stranger, so people will be more impressed. It is already hard enough to believe; it's difficult to take it seriously without panicking. His only thoughts are all the sayings that hang on the walls in the locker room: DO BETTER THAN YOUR BEST. TO ASSUME THE WORST IS TO MAKE IT HAPPEN. He tells himself not to get on Henry's bad side, but Henry seems calm enough. There's something about him--despite his size, despite the gun and knife--that seems harmless. Not harmless, exactly, just not harmful. Dave's known lots of boys with huge bodies that were afraid to use them, afraid to hurt someone. He's learned you can only teach meanness so far.

 

~

When Henry is finished, he takes the skin in both hands and throws it deeper into the woods. He returns, the rifle pointed at the ground.
    "You going to tan that hide?" Dave says.
    "I doubt that very much."
    "You think something's gone wrong? Seems like she's been gone a while."
    "Maybe, it might be better," Henry says, "if we don't talk specifically about this situation here." He walks over to the lamps and begins to adjust them.
    "Right." Dave sits back, letting the silence grow, trying to imagine himself in another place. He thinks of Melissa, of what she is doing now, and of the hike they took this afternoon. Setting out, he'd begun picking up all the old cans and bottles they came across; soon he had too many to carry, and had to give it up. Melissa said a team of scouts should handle that, and when he tried to correct her he couldn't remember if it was called a pack or troop. She said it might do him some good to litter, once in a while. She said if she had a gun she'd shoot rows of bottles, leave shards of glass all across the wilderness. She likes to provoke him.
    "What are you thinking about?" Henry says.
    "Hiking," Dave says. "This is our first anniversary, my wife and mine."
    "Congratulations." Henry shrugs his shoulders, as if that won't change the way things will go.
    "You ever seen that sign out there?" Dave points toward the road. "The one in red paint?"
    "Haven't seen it."
    "The one that says, `I'll never do that again.' We were wondering what that could be about."
    "I don't know this area real well," Henry says. "What's your answer?"
    "We couldn't figure it."
    "I mean, what would you never do again?"
    "I don't know."
    "What about coming out here, to that cabin? Would you do that again?"
    "Thought we weren't talking about this situation," Dave says. He checks his wrist; he'd taken off his watch and left it in the cabin, next to the sleeping bag. It must be past midnight now, and getting colder. The lamps shine on the carcass, but they don't reach far, the darkness tight in every direction. The trees lean a little, shifting their branches in a wind he can't feel.
    "I'll never get drunk with the guys I work with again," he says. "That I wouldn't do. I'm a football coach, just to give you some background." He almost says how his job depends on the performance of one nineteen-year-old kid, one quarterback, but the sad truth in that joke always keeps people from laughing. Dave looks up; Henry's still standing there, waiting for him to continue.
    "This was after a big game, one we won, so we went out to celebrate. Just drinking and drinking, everyone challenging each other. Finally, I was about to pass out, but every time I fell asleep they'd put smelling salts under my nose. And they'd make me do another shot, promise it was the last one."
    Talking helps him feel better, keeps his mind busy. And it's best to build up a kind of friendliness; that way, later, Henry might not want to do anything to hurt him. Dave's worried about Melissa, but he won't let himself slip into negative thinking. She can take care of herself, after all, she's the sensible one; he thinks of her short black hair, her temper, the muscles in her calves. She's the one who quiets talkers at movies, who straightens out the overcharging electric company, who stands up to drunks. She's studying to be a dentist, and she actually enjoys the anatomy they do on cadavers--cutting back the skin to show the jaw, the gums, opening the throat to see what it holds. None of that bothers her. She can handle a night like this.
    "So did they ever let you sleep?" Henry says.
    "Yeah, they did. Only once I was asleep they wrote all over my body, in permanent marker. All kinds of curse words, drawings. Stripes on my dick, everything. Had a green mustache for weeks."
    Henry laughs, which is a good sign. He offers a can of chewing tobacco, then takes a dip for himself when Dave refuses.
    "Hell," Henry says, "I'll never give her my pistol again, knowing she has it now, her frame of mind. That I'd never do again."

 

~

Dave has a bad feeling when Henry takes out the camouflage suit--it seems a sign that action is about to be taken, that the night is turning. Henry says it's just that it's getting cold. Before he touches the suit, he has Dave pour water over his hands, to rinse off the blood; his fingers are thick and crooked, hands twice the size of Dave's.
    He tells about the suit as he pulls it on. The inner layer is like rubber, and charcoal in the fabric eliminates human scent before it's released into the air.
    "An animal can walk right up to you," he says. "Won't smell you at all." When he pulls off his boots, his feet are bare.
    Dave listens. His breath is white, rising. He wonders if he could outrun Henry, take off while Henry struggles to get the suit over his thighs. The rifle's still in Henry's hand, though, and it's true Dave wouldn't know where to run, that even if he escaped there would still be Melissa.
    "Total Illusion 3-D Camo," Henry says. "Makes me invisible. This outer suit is made of a special, silent kind of material; these polyester leaves, sewn on here, flutter and break up your outline, so you blend into the forest." He pulls on the gloves, claps them together, then the mask, which is a kind of hood with only two small eyeholes, strips of leaves between them. In the lamplight, he looks like a walking tree, a man overcome by vegetation. He doesn't sound human, either; his voice is muffled.
    "That's something, all right," Dave says.
    Henry pulls up the mask, so it rests atop his hair and makes him even taller, two headed. Reaching into the plastic locker, he hands a sleeping bag, also camouflage, to Dave.
    "Unzip it," he says. "Wrap it around yourself."
    And then he sets to collecting wood, piling up kindling. He won't let Dave search for the wood, but allows him to arrange it, to push the dried leaves underneath. Soon, the fire is taking hold. Dave and Henry sit on either side of it, watching each other above the flames, both stealing expectant glances toward the road.
    "Another thing I'd never do," Henry says. "One time, a couple years back, winter, a child went missing, you know, and they got everyone they could to go out searching. Five days on my snowmobile, colder than anything." He stands, adds a chunk of wood, spits into the flames.
    This time, when he offers the snuff, Dave takes a pinch; some of the younger coaches use it, but he never does. Dentists hate it, but he's only trying to connect with Henry. Melissa will understand that, if she'll just get here. He spits, tries to adjust the grains of tobacco with the tip of his tongue. In the heat above the flames, Henry's two heads melt and twist, stretching even higher and then coming back together. Dave wonders if he put on the suit just to show it off; though Henry is probably older than he is, it doesn't feel that way. And he feels a kind of empathy, also--Henry is waiting for Nancy, and he can't do anything about it but wait. Nothing's moving as smoothly as Henry expected.
    "Did they ever find the child?" Dave says. "Did you?"
    "No." Henry scratches his beard; the soles of his shoes shine in the firelight. "You ever hear of Wolf Children?" he says. "Like the ones raised by animals?"
    "I don't think so."
    "Sometimes wolves will dig a burrow for a lost child," Henry says, "line it with leaves, sleep in a circle around it to keep it warm. I saw a whole television program about it, these kids. They run around on all fours, sniff everything, lap water out of a bowl. Hardly feel the cold. Skin of their hands and knees gets all thick and horny and they run straight up mountains. Can see better in the night than the day."
    Dave listens. Swiveling, he looks behind him. He doesn't believe a word of it, but the possibility of these children makes the space under the trees turn darker.
    "They have these children on the show?" he says. "They have pictures, or what?"
    "Drawings, I guess. Mostly this was a hundred years ago or more."
    "Of course it was," Dave says, laughing, then thinks he should have held his tongue. He spits, the tobacco gritty in his teeth, foul in the back of his throat.
    "There was more open space, then," Henry says. "Thing is, when they got caught, they could hardly ever learn to talk, or to sleep in a bed or anything." The mask is still resting atop his head, a little crooked, the eyeholes empty and dark. "I just wondered," he says, "if they might have been better off left where they were."
    "Hold on," Dave says. "I'm just trying to follow you, here. Are you saying you'd never search for a lost child again, or that this lost child got taken in by wolves, or what?"
    "I don't know what I'm saying," Henry says. He smiles, his teeth surrounded by beard. "Maybe if they're not caught for a couple years, then you should let them go. I don't know. Maybe I just wanted to tell about the show I saw."

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