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Vol. 4, No. 1

Stranger
by Peter Rock

~

The combination of hunger, lack of sleep, and the chew--along with the warm beer Henry found in the locker--has left Dave dizzy, almost giddy. He forgets himself, starts in on the questions again.
    "You two together?" he says.
    "What do you mean?"
    "You married or anything?"
    Henry doesn't answer, and Dave nods in agreement, as if he should have known better. He pulls the sleeping bag more tightly around his shoulders, his feet almost in the fire.
    "Makes sense to me," he says. "You see all these rich folks coming in, sport-utility vehicles and whatever, out here where they don't know anything. Can't blame you. I'd be tempted, too, if I was in your place."
    "Makes sense to you, does it? You have no idea. You think this is about money?" Henry smiles his smile, crushes the beer can in his huge hand, throws it into the fire. The aluminum buckles in the flames, turns black. The thick, white bed of ashes rises and falls, breathing, sometimes revealing the hot coals beneath. A log collapses. Sparks shoot upward, burn themselves to cinders.
    "I got something to tell you," Henry says, "just for you to know. This afternoon we were watching everything. We were standing in the trees. We saw the two of you, how you put your shirt under her, and we heard the noises you made, her legs in the air, your bony ass going."
    Dave doesn't say anything; he almost hopes Henry will continue, tell him what he and Melissa looked like, pressed together in that clearing, under the sun and sky.
    "Maybe we shouldn't have watched," Henry says. "Probably I wouldn't have, if I knew you then. We never would have thought of it, if we didn't come across you."
    One headlight shines, out on the road. It comes closer, searching for them; they can hear the tires as the truck passes by; the two red taillights slide away, blinking out.
    "What's she doing?" Henry says. "She knows the way."
    The headlight reappears, and the truck passes by, slowly, back the other way. Henry stands and checks the halogen lamps, which are still burning brightly, aimed at the road.
    Five minutes later, the truck returns, and veers into the trees, toward them, the one headlight winking as the wheels roll down through the ditch, up the other side. It doesn't come any closer.
    "Maybe she broke down," Dave says.
    "No. I can hear the engine. Listen."
    "Think she wants you to go out there?"
    "Maybe both of us," Henry says. "I can't leave you here."
    "What am I going to do? Run? All I want is to give you whatever you want, whatever that is, and then I want to be together with my wife."
    "Quiet."
    "If she wanted us both," Dave says, "she'd just drive in here again."
    Henry stands for another five minutes, silent, then sticks a finger in his mouth and throws his dip of chew into the fire. Sliding the lid from the plastic locker, he takes out a thick metal flashlight. He pulls the mask back down over his head, and once again he seems made of leaves.
    "Stay here," he says, his voice muffled. He almost leaves the rifle behind, then remembers it, and walks away, crossing the beams of the halogen lamps. Fake leaves span the space between his legs, flutter along his shoulders.
    Dave hesitates for only a moment, then stands and backs away, kicking the sleeping bag toward the fire. Underneath the branches of the trees, he bumps into someone, an arm reaching to hold him; it's the deer carcass, a hoof wrapped around his waist. He shakes it off, steps away, and almost immediately trips over the bloody hide; on his feet again, he stumbles, hands out in front of him, slapping tree trunks as he moves between them. He can't hear Henry because of the silent fabric, can't smell him for the charcoal suit, but the beam of the flashlight is clear and true, and no one needs camouflage in the dark. The truck idles, the driver's door open and the ceiling light on, the whole thing glowing like it's at the bottom of the ocean. Through the bright windows it's clear that the cab is empty; perhaps someone is lying in the bed of the truck, or hidden in the dark trees surrounding it. Dave is flat on his stomach, his urge to shout overcome by his desire to let it happen, to watch.
    Still moving closer, Henry strays into, then out of the headlight's beam.
    "Hello?" he says. "Hello?"
    His voice is caught in the mask, turned back on itself. Standing still, he aims the flashlight at the ground, then slowly switches it off. He's realized where he is and what has happened, and he knows that it's now too late to become invisible.
    At the first gunshot, birds rise and clatter through the branches above. Sticks rattle down. Animals startle and slip through the underbrush.
    There's only the sound of the truck after the second shot, the engine roughly idling. Dave, pressing himself harder into the ground, tastes the dirt on his lips; he can feel the wild children close around him--quick, seeing in the darkness, sensing that he is no threat.
    A dark shape moves beneath the truck, an arm reaching through the open door and into the light. It's Henry, his long body sliding up, low, flat on the seat now so he can't be seen through the windshield. Dave holds his breath, watching, hoping Henry will make it.
    He does not hear the shift, but slowly the truck begins to ease backward, sticks cracking beneath the tires. Another shot, a bullet tearing into metal, and Henry sits up straight, the truck accelerating. It sideswipes a tree, and a brake light shatters. The open door wrenches back and is torn off, left behind. The whole thing lunges over the ditch, onto the road. The headlight stares through dust.
    Tires spinning, finding the ruts, the truck slams forward. The cab is alight, and Henry is visible, inside, still hooded, sliding away with the sound of gravel, gone.
    A thick silence rises, multiplying in the darkness, the stars held out by the trees overhead. Then Melissa's voice sounds, startling him, closer than he expected.
    "David?" she says. "Are you here?"

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