In the deep and dark woods, a low-rent gang murders with impunity. A bad place to be trapped, a bad time to be there, a good time to stay invisible. But when an innocent girl is dragged into it, when she is threatened with rape and murder, well, you can't just do nothing, can you?
Over eighteen hours of relentless flight, through killings descending from chivalry to self-defense to murder to rage to vengeance, maybe doing nothing would have been the best choice.
But, stranded in the woods with no escape, with no rescue, it's too late for that. And even when it's over, it isn't.
It’s funny the things that I remembered afterwards. I know what time the nightmare began, as if that had any relevance. Time didn’t matter to the guy that they killed. He had run out of it. And I doubt that it mattered to the girl they tried to rape and murder. To her, time probably stood still. The time was meaningless – it was dark, and that’s all that mattered.
My watch ticked on my bureau at home, not on my wrist here at the lake. I wanted to avoid the structure of time, the mechanics it required, the restrictions it imposed. Peace and solitude were the recipe, and the ingredients didn’t include time. Darkness was in the mix, and I was folded in it, trying to achieve sensory deprivation to compliment my emotional deprivation.
But I went back later and figured the time out, calculating it from some early, peaceful events. Events associated with normal life, events that work on a schedule. Parked alone in the remote satellite lot at the lake, I listened to the last caller on an evening talk program on my car radio. At 8 PM, they cut to the local news, and I was far from my locale so I didn’t care about it and turned the car off.
My small pack was on the passenger seat next to me, holding some essentials like a bottle of water, spare underwear and a warm shirt, and my ground pad for sitting, and the rest of my camping gear was in the trunk. I took the pack with me on the short walk to the lake shore to find a place to set up for the night.
I felt no breeze, but the leaves rustled anyway, each tiny wave harmonizing with the million others around it, creating the slightest whisper. It was a slender, placid sound, nature’s white noise. It sounded like an invitation to me.
At the shore, looking for a suitable spot to pitch my tent, the other sound, the one I thought I imagined, began to intensify, establishing itself as real. I stopped trying to suppress it and listened. Before long, I knew the source - a car. Coming closer on the remote lake access road, coming fast. As it neared, and the volume increased, it became clear that two cars raced toward me, each with a distinct sound as its speed cycled up and down.
I turned toward the disturbance, and watched the first car careen into the parking lot like the driver didn’t know it dead-ended. Apparently mistaking the path leading to the lake for the road, he discovered his mistake when his little car tried to vault the timbers that surrounded and defined the lot, and instead came to an abrupt stop still straddling one, the engine dead and lights extinguished. The driver scrambled out and tripped more than ran for the lake, possibly injured and unable to keep upright.
I had scurried to my left, away from the path of the car, and I dove into the sparsely forested picnic area, hiding behind one of the pine trees. The second car – it turned out to be a van – slipped and slid to a stop right behind the first. Somebody burst from the driver’s door like a stuntman jerked by unseen cables. Somebody else came from the back, and they took off after the first driver and easily caught him on the beach and tackled him and hit him with something that made a dull, disparaging sound. Something like the sound you hear when Letterman drops a melon off a ten-story building onto the pavement. The sound said loud and clear, “He’s dead.”
That scared me liquid. My body turned the consistency of yogurt, as if I had suddenly become an invertebrate, with no bones and muscle to hold me together, and I might leak out of my clothes. I had seen enough news stories, and I had a good enough imagination to know that I didn’t want to be involved in this.
And I wouldn’t have been, except for her.
She was the passenger in the small car, but she didn’t get out. I didn’t even know she was there, and I was all ready to lay low for as long as it took for these guys to do whatever it was that they wanted, and leave. Or swim until I reached the other side of the lake, or drowned trying, if they spotted me. But then three more somebodies, presumably from the van, cut open the convertible top of the small car and dragged her out through the opening. Maybe they did it to be dramatic, or maybe the doors were locked, or jammed from the impact. Whatever the reason, it got my attention.
She made no noise when they dragged her out, didn’t struggle or scream, and I figured that she was unconscious from the crash, or maybe even dead. In contrast to her, the somebodies weren’t quiet and would have been right at home in any professional wrestling audience, making the kinds of noises you associate with a Stallone movie. They grunted, hooted, whooped, and imitated street jive like “aw rye, mama,” offering some pretty graphic commentary on her structure, mostly complimentary. There were suggestions, declarations actually, about who would do what to whom, and in what order.
Her silence must have finally gotten their attention.
“Fuck, man. She alive?” one of them asked.
“Her tits ain’t gonna tell you nothin’, man.” The first voice again.
“Yeah? Just checkin’ for a heartbeat.” Then, “Ow! Goddam bitch bit me!”
“Guess she’s alive.”
A third voice joined the discussion.
“Both you assholes knock it off and take her over there.” He seemed to be in charge.
‘Over there’ was the picnic area where I hid, some pine trees shading a half-dozen of those one-piece wooden tables, and the same number of grills attached to stout posts. All of it laid out for the tourists who would be using them to grill their hamburgers and hot dogs while the kids swam and played when the spring vacation season started in several weeks. It was not a location familiar with what was happening. One reason I’d chosen to come here.
My hiding spot, even behind the tree, felt exposed, and I squirmed deeper into the pine needles covering the ground. The scene was lodged in my memory, as vivid as a color. I saw it strongly backlit by the van’s lights, and with little definition, like shadow theater. Behind me, the lake stretched far enough to conceal the curvature of the shoreline, and the beach varied in depth, evolving from a sand surrogate to a tough, stiff grass, and then to a scrub pine forest. The shoreline rose gradually, and once into the forest, the land climbed a bit more steeply, and the size and density of the trees grew more imposing.
To make it even more surreal, I saw a mind-enhanced image, not the real thing. Like one of those satellite photographs sharpened by sophisticated software, my imagination filled in all the gaps between the fragments that I actually could see, forming a perfect, if not completely accurate, image.
The modest parking area ended the road like a lollipop on a stick. The path from the lot to the beach, restricted to foot traffic by the timbers, provided access to the water. These seemed to work, and the small car had been trashed pretty good testing them. It probably had more value now as a parts depot than as transportation.
My own car, hidden by the forest, was parked in the smaller, overflow area some 200 feet back up the road where I had left it, locked for no reason other than habit because the aging fabric of its convertible top wouldn’t stop a determined squirrel. By my rough estimate, they would catch me and kill me about halfway there, so I decided to stay put.
The first two somebodies crouched over their dead body almost directly to my right, with their backs toward me. Except for the dead body, of course, and it didn’t really matter anymore which way he faced. To my left front, two somebodies held the girl, one on each side, and the third faced her, standing back, assessing and appraising, like he was going to paint their picture.
When the lead somebody finally moved, he raised his right hand and I could see that it held a very big knife. A three-syllable knife: bi-ii-ig. He held it like a teacher might hold a pointer during a geography lesson, in his closed fist with the tip pointed up, ready to identify Ethiopia on a wall map or something. He stepped closer, and slowly, deliberately, stuck the knife in her stomach.